When the NAACP’s conference ended here last week, civil rights leaders left behind a portrait of black men in crisis. Too many young black men, said the civil rights group, are underemployed, alternately feared and reviled, and living at risk.
Now come the men of Sigma Pi Phi, a once-secret black fraternity that celebrates the professional and material success of black men. Known as the Boule (pronounced boo-lay ), the group is here this week for its biennial meeting and its own look at “An Agenda for the Black Male in the ‘90s.”
It was an invitation-only, tuxedoed gathering of some of the most prominent and powerful black men in America, who say they are struggling to define their responsibility to other black men, the ones the NAACP calls “endangered.”
( Boule is a Greek word, designating a council of community leaders who advised kings. The reference, members of the 3,000-man, worldwide fraternity, is highly intentional.)
The roster of members here this week reads like a Who’s Who among blacks: U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis W. Sullivan, Democratic National Committee Chairman Ron Brown, Mayor Tom Bradley, NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Hooks.
Like Yale’s Skull and Bones secret society to which George Bush belongs, the Boule has been criticized by some as a social anachronism, and has challenged members to change its image.
Incoming president Dr. Benjamin Major, a retired San Francisco physician, said he is aware of charges that the group is more interested in socializing and congratulating itself on its enviable exclusivity than it is in making a substantial contribution to the rest of black America.
“Until eight or 10 years ago, we were just what we were perceived to be,” said Major, who wants to make the group’s social action committee more aggressive.
“We don’t want to appear as if we were remaining above the problems of most black people. We know we didn’t get here solely by the dint of our own hard work,” he added. “We owe a lot of people, and we have to give back to our brothers and sisters.”
The ballroom of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel where the Boule opened its meeting last weekend may be only a freeway away from South-Central Los Angeles, but it was light-years away in mood.
As 1,300 members and wives skirted the buffet tables to clasp hands and embrace, a black-tie band played jazz favorites from the 1940s and ‘50s.
The men looked prosperous and seemed accustomed to the deference accorded them. Many of their well-coiffed wives wore designer clothes, French perfume and expensive-looking jewelry.
Cocktail conversation was of children in medical school, summer homes at the beach, Mexican vacations, luxury cruises.
This is not the stuff of recent NAACP statistics on “the endangered black male”: One of four black men in their 20s is in jail, in prison, on probation or parole. Black men in poor, inner-city neighborhoods are less likely to live to the age of 65 than men in Bangladesh. Black males are the only U.S. demographic group that can expect to live shorter lives in 1990 than they did in 1980.
The fact that the world of black men in crisis rarely collides with this world of black-tie networking concerns some older Boule members, as well as many of the young achievers now being invited in.
But social activism is a relative newcomer to the fraternity’s social agenda, said Major, who teaches in the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley. And it has been emphasized recently, in part, to convince younger members that the organization could offer them more than social connections. Today, say the Boule’s leaders, it can offer an opportunity for social commitment.
Formed in 1904 by a group of Philadelphia doctors and dentists, the fraternity was organized so that the tiny number of black men with graduate degrees could network with each other and help younger men.
“It was important back then,” said Major, “because the only avenues of professional discourse (in society as a whole) were closed by segregation.”
It’s important now, say the group’s leaders, to continue the networking, as well as to offer role models and mentors for a new generation of professional black men.
As a young man living in Berkeley, Major recalled that he would catch occasional glimpses of older men in the community as they quietly left to attend their ritual monthly meetings.
“I saw these black professional men, doctors, judges, lawyers, put on their tuxedos every fourth Saturday and disappear,” Major said. “I wanted to know what was going on.”
He found out when he became one of the very few invited to join the group. He learned the secret handshakes and other Greek esoterica as he discovered that most of the black leaders in his community were already members.
“It was an honor to simply be in the company of such men,” Major said.
Today’s membership includes Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, Chief Judge A. Leon Higgenbotham of the U. S. Federal Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, publishers Earl Graves (Black Enterprise) and John H. Johnson (Ebony).
The list of deceased members reads like a page of modern American history: sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, U. N. Ambassador Ralph Bunche, Urban League President Whitney Young, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his legendary mentor, Dr. Benjamin Mays.
Many past and present Boule members were “first-and-onlys,” according to Sigma Pi Phi historian Matthew Carter, himself the first black mayor of predominantly white Montclair, N.J.
Chemist Samuel P. Massie was the first black professor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Ernest Wilkins, who received a Ph.D. at age 15, was the only black scientist attached to the Manhattan Project.
Several of the fraternity’s Los Angeles members are second-generation Boule brothers: Ivan Houston, chairman of Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co., one of the country’s largest black-owned insurance companies (and co-chairman of the conference) followed in the footsteps of his father, Norman.
Elbert Hudson was another legacy member: his father, H. Claude Hudson, a dentist and banker with a law degree, was president of the Los Angeles NAACP chapter.
The Boule’s modern membership includes a handful of white members, some of them Jewish men active in the civil rights movement. There are no women in the fraternity’s 96 chapters and, members say, no plans to open membership to them. Sigma Pi Phi members pay about $300 per year in dues, plus the costs of entertaining their brothers at monthly meetings. Qualifications for membership include professional accomplishment and service to the community. A potential member is voted on by the local chapter.
The average age of members hovers around 60. The reason, according to Los Angeles Boule president, neurosurgeon Dr. Samuel Biggers, is that in the past, membership “was seen as the pinnacle of one’s professional and social career.”
“We were getting old, dying on the vine, you could say,” Major said. “So we decided to recruit some younger men, and they wanted social activism as part of the Boule. The group also decided to become less secretive as it refocused on reaching out to other black men’s worlds, including the ghetto.”
While the group has pledged to give back to the black community, the Boule’s way of giving back, “is by being mentors and role models--not by throwing money at a problem,” Major said.
The fraternity does give money away, however, in its nationwide scholarship programs for high-achieving young black men. Members also are actively involved in voter education projects for blacks of all ages and backgrounds.
Still, the focus remains on mentorship. When segregation was legal in the United States, Major said, the black elite and the black poor often lived close to each other. Children from impoverished families were well aware that black doctors, lawyers, teachers and ministers existed. They often knew them on a familiar basis, and several were “brought along” by a successful adult who took an interest in them.
But today, many successful blacks live outside the black community. Their affluent neighbors are often white. The black middle class has been accused by some conservative black sociologists of deserting its less-fortunate brethren, leaving no role models for poor black youth.
Major hopes Boule members will take an active role in changing that. “One-on-one contact is important,” he said. “It makes all the difference.”
That’s something Fred Terrell is happy to hear. A Los Angeles native and Yale-educated investment banker, Terrell says he had his own mentor, Elbert Hudson, chairman of Broadway Federal Savings & Loan.
At 36, Terrell is by far the youngest member of the New York City Boule. As the corporate finance executive for First Boston, Terrell believes that fellowship with other black men is a necessary counterweight to his largely alabaster professional life.
But he has another agenda, which is “to gently, but firmly,” persuade his Boule colleagues to take more responsibility for the non-affluent sector of their community.
“I think it does very little for the whole of the African-American community for a group like this to meet every two years and be self-congratulatory,” said Terrell, “unless we think about how to improve the conditions for all of those who aren’t here.”
HHS secretary Sullivan, speaking Monday on “The Crisis of the Black Male,” called upon members to step in to help resolve the crisis facing the “endangered black males” of the nation.
“One way of sharing the benefits of your successful life,” Sullivan told his Boule brothers, “is to help another young man become a success. . . . The ability to help our young men lies primarily with us .”