This February 23, The Delta chapter of Kappa Alpha, at Wofford College, celebrates its 150th birthday.
Kappa Alpha traces its origins to Washington and Lee, though like all secret societies, the founders were more concerned with getting their organization going than they were documenting the history they were making. But, the fraternity was founded there between late 1865 and early 1866. For anyone interested, a recent history of the fraternity by historian Martin Clagett, Excelsior, will give you all the details. Within a few years, the early founders had decided their group needed to expand. In the spring of 1868, the Alpha chapter authorized members to establish a “lodge of our order” at Virginia Military Institute and the University of Georgia. Very soon thereafter, an opportunity arose to establish a lodge at Wofford.
A South Carolinian named William A. Rogers had attended Washington College in 1867-68, desiring to study under Washington College’s president, who happened to be Robert E. Lee. Rogers was initiated into Kappa Alpha while at Washington College, but returned to his native state in the fall of 1868. According to campus legend, he came with a letter of recommendation from Lee. He joined the freshman class at Wofford in October 1868. He soon communicated his desire to establish a chapter in Spartanburg, and in November, the Alpha granted him permission to organize a chapter. Rogers, according to the Alpha chapter minutes, had recruited several interested members. Clagett’s history notes that “On February 23, 1869, in a rented room of the old Evans residence on Church Street, four members were initiated into the lodge.” These four members, William A. Rogers, Edwin W. Peeples, Hope H. Newton, and Lawrence D. Hamer then organized Delta Chapter. Peeples and Newton were seniors and Hamer was a junior. These four then elected John Woods as a member. The Alpha chapter soon sent the bylaws and charter to the Delta chapter.
Delta chapter grew, though Clagett notes that the Alpha chapter waned somewhat after the founding generation left. Rogers, as the grand master of the Delta chapter, went about organizing a strong chapter and recruiting good brothers. Two of them were politically (in Wofford terms) well connected. One was John Wesley Shipp, the son of the president of the college, and another was Joseph Augustus Gamewell, the son of a founding trustee. Gamewell, a member of the class of 1871, came back to join the faculty in 1875, a position he retained for 65 years. In the fall of 1869, Shipp succeeded Rogers as Grand Master of the chapter.
Kappa Alpha has been a consistent presence at Wofford for 150 years. Several other fraternities quickly joined them on campus – Chi Psi came later in 1869, and Chi Phi came in 1871. Those two did not come back after the early 1900s, when the college banned fraternities for about ten years. Banning the fraternities did not do away with them, it just forced them underground. One interesting moment in the early 20th century was when about 9 students were initiated sub rosa by the chapter at the College of Charleston. When the college learned of their misdeeds, they expelled all of them. Those students all enrolled at Trinity in North Carolina, where they all graduated. Eventually, Wofford relented, granting them their degrees some twenty years later. The faculty and trustees realized that banning secret societies was ultimately a fruitless, pointless endeavor and allowed them to return in 1915. That’s why the Kappa Alpha chapter actually has two charters – one from 1869, and another from 1915.
Their original 1869 charter makes Kappa Alpha the oldest currently existing student organization on campus.