Joseph Long and Beau Patterson of Hilton Head Island have each had stellar careers, but so have all 17 chartering members of Epsilon Mu, the newest chapter of Sigma Pi Phi, the nation’s first and oldest historically black Greek-letter fraternal organization.
“We look for those men who are doing outstanding work, those who are showing leadership skills and something that is uncommon and unique and sets them apart,” said Patterson, secretary of Epsilon Mu.
And Epsilon Mu’s chartering members seem to carry the same top-tiered accolades. Comprised of retired college presidents, judges, lawyers, doctors, businessmen, entrepreneurs and top executives, Epsilon Mu also has the special distinction of being the first chapter in the fraternity’s 108-year history to be chartered by a group of men who were prior members in existing chapters.
A private chartering ceremony was held Feb. 4, followed by a dinner reception at Hampton Hall Country Club. After the ceremony, these 17 men had joined the more than 5,000 Sigma Pi Phi members in at least 125 chapters nationwide.
The story of the fraternity begins in 1904 when “a small group in Philadelphia set out to create an organization that would provide a vehicle for men of standing and like tastes to come together to know the best of one another,” according to the fraternity’s website.
“It’s important to remember the genesis of this organization,” Patterson said. “This occurred eight years after the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling and it left a psyche on the African-American man. This was a time of segregation, lynchings and when an African-American couldn’t ride on the train, bus, and couldn’t get a taxi. We needed to band together to help overcome some of those challenges and to be able to dream and have ambition. They needed to have a group in which the cultural intelligentsia, professional class of men could come together and lift up the community as a whole.”
Plessy v. Ferguson is the 1896 Supreme Court ruling that constitutionally upheld racial segregation in public facilities under the “separate but equal” doctrine. It was later overturned in 1954 during the Supreme Court decision of Brown V. Board of Education.
Decades later, the men of Sigma Phi Pi still aim to lift up their communities by focusing on the area’s youth, primarily young men, by being mentors and role models to those most at-risk, according to Long, chapter president and long-time area attorney.
“Most of us started with humble backgrounds and our parents didn’t have our education or our successes, but they did encourage us to do better,” he said. “Perhaps these young men might be able to see that ‘I can be like this someday.’ That perhaps there are other ways to become successful and that a well-educated person can contribute a lot.”
Epsilon Mu is made up of “individuals who have a desire and the motivation to give back and you can be sure that we will be giving back in the Hilton Head area,” Long said.
Photo by Willie Joe Rice, Willie J. Rice Photography