Iota Phi Theta coat of arms

“Building on Tradition, Not Resting on One,” is the motto of Iota Phi Theta fraternity, the most recent Greek letter organization to join the National Pan Hellenic Council. 

When the fraternity was established by 12 young men at Morgan State College on Sept. 19, 1963, it was composed mostly of non-traditional students who had known each other for a long time. Some had families, served time in the military or were working while pursuing an education. For the first few years, members were mostly non-traditional students, which made recruitment of new undergraduate members challenging. 

In 1967, a group affectionately known as the Pied Pipers gathered to spread Iota Phi Theta’s message. Proudly displaying colors of charcoal brown and gilded gold, the men heralded the principles of scholarship, leadership, citizenship, fidelity and brotherhood among men along the east coast.  Consequently, the fraternity, often referred to as Iotas, Centaurs and Thetamen experienced a surge in membership. By the early 1980s, Iota Phi Theta had expanded its presence to the west coast, with the establishment a chapter at San Francisco State University in 1983.

On Nov. 12, 1996, Iota Phi Theta was unanimously accepted into the National Pan Hellenic Council, joining the existing eight historically black fraternities and sororities. Collectively, they were thereafter referred to as the “Divine Nine.”

Ten years later, the Zeta Nu chapter was chartered at UMES in 2006.

Civil rights movement and activism:

Established in the midst of the Civil Rights era, Iota Phi Theta members considered themselves militant at a time before militancy was popular. One of their first acts in support of the movement was boycotting a segregated shopping mall in Baltimore shortly after the first chapter formed.  Further activism among the Iotas included community service projects with the NAACP, United Negro College Fund and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Coming to the aid of Big Brothers of America during the 1960s and 1970s, president Polaris Thomas Dean appeared in television interviews to broadcast the importance of the program and the need for additional participants and funding.

Assisting the National Federation of the Blind and the National Sickle Cell Foundation are among initiatives Iota Phi Theta members continue to support in their respective communities.

In 1993, the Iotas launched the National Iota Foundation, which has enabled the organization to award grants, scholarships and underwrite their annual Iota Black College Tour, which began in 1996. One of the fraternity’s best-known service initiatives is the Iota Youth Alliance, of which a major project is the African American Male Education Network for mentoring and tutoring males age 8-13 in academic, social and leadership skills. Other programs the Thetamen have supported over the years include: Developing Better Fatherhood Project, Afya Njema Program (Swahili for good health) – educating the public on physical, mental and spiritual health, Iota Minority Political Mobilization and the Community Reclamation Initiative.

Members of note:

  • T.C. Carson – actor
  • Spencer Christian – broadcaster 
  • Michael Frisby –White House correspondent, The Wall Street Journal
  • Elvin Hayes – professional athlete, member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame
  • Desi Arnez Hines II: film actor
  • Kevin Lofton – president / CEO – Catholic Health Initiatives
  • Dr. J. Keith Motley: Chancellor – University of Massachusetts, Boston
  • Bobby L. Rush – member of Congress
  • Shelley Stewart – senior vice president of operational excellence and chief procurement officer, Tyco International

— Frederick Douglass Library archives staff

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