Q&A on the News

Q: How and when did fraternities begin? What was their purpose when they started? What were the first fraternities and sororities in the U.S., and at what university did they begin?

—Lance DeLoach, Thomaston

A: The first Greek-letter fraternity was the Phi Beta Kappa Society, which was founded at the College of William & Mary in 1776, according to the society's website and sources such as the New World Encyclopedia. The organization was essentially established as a secret literary society, providing a place for students to discuss topics not covered in their classes.

However, early Greek-letter organizations often formed for a wide range of social, literary and academic reasons. Kappa Alpha Society, which was established in 1825 at Schenectady, New York’s Union College, is the nation’s oldest Greek-letter social fraternity, according to its website, ka.org.

The first sorority—the all-female version of the traditionally male fraternities—was Syracuse University’s Gamma Phi Beta, which was founded in 1874, according to its website, gammaphibeta.org. By the end of the 19th century, fraternities and sororities had begun to nationalize, with many organizations setting up chapters at universities.

In addition to being differentiated by their primary purpose, Greek-letter organizations also have varying traditions and symbols, which are often kept secret by their members.

Fast Copy News Service wrote this column; Dillon Thompson contributed. Do you have a question? We’ll try to get the answer. Call 404-222-2002 or email q&a@ajc.com (include name, phone and city).