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Trove of video interviews with prominent African-Americans entrusted to Cornell Library

"Society offered us narrowly circumscribed opportunity and no security. Out of our need, our Fraternity brought social purpose and social action," wrote physician Henry Arthur Callis, Class of 1909, a founding member of the first chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

On Dec. 4 -- the 103rd anniversary of the founding of the fraternity at Cornell -- the organization's 33rd national president, Herman "Skip" Mason Jr., signed a memorandum of understanding with University Archivist Elaine Engst to deposit video interviews with some of the fraternity's most prominent members.

The interviews with Alpha Phi Alpha brothers, including former Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke, historian John Hope Franklin and National Urban League President Marc Morial, were conducted for a 2006 PBS documentary. (That year Kroch Library mounted an exhibition on the fraternity's centennial.) But many hours of footage, which capture the nation's struggle for racial equality, could not be used in the final film, and the fraternity is donating all of the interviews to the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.

An 800-chapter-strong Greek organization with a predominantly African-American membership and more than 100,000 living members, Alpha Phi Alpha boasts such illustrious brothers as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., entertainer Lionel Ritchie as well as past and current members of Congress.

"For Alpha Phi Alpha brothers, this is a very significant occasion," said Robert L. Harris Jr., professor of African-American history and the fraternity's national historian. "Founder's Day celebrations are taking place throughout the country today. But it's very special to be here, in Ithaca, New York, at the site of the founding.

"I've now been a member of the fraternity for 46 years," continued Harris, who is the vice provost for diversity and faculty development emeritus. "We believe in academic achievement first and foremost. That was great for me, especially being the first member of my family to go to college. These individuals were very inspirational, very encouraging, and I think it helped me to get through the undergraduate process."

His brothers also encouraged Harris to raise his sights beyond becoming a high school teacher and to pursue a Ph.D., just as early African-American Cornellians took it upon themselves to mentor and academically support fellow students.

"We hope that students and researchers who are interested in learning more about the development of the African-American experience through the eyes of Alpha will come and use it," said Mason.

The forthcoming materials "will be a wonderful addition to the existing historical materials for the Alpha chapter, but also it will really enhance our collections on African-American history," said Engst, who noted that Cornell Library published historian Carol Kammen's "Part and Apart: The Black Experience at Cornell, 1865-1945" last June.

Two members of Cornell's Board of Trustees, Asa J. Craig '11 and Ronald D. McCray '79, are also Alpha Phi Alpha brothers.

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Joe Schwartz