In November of 1876, a young man sealed a letter, stamped it, and sent it to the Office of the Dean. This letter was a petition to start a charter of Beta Theta Pi at Johns Hopkins University, making it the first fraternity to receive an official charter at the school, and setting into motion the establishment of Greek organizations on campus. Many more Greek organizations followed, laying down the groundwork for excellence and tradition, which still shape the fraternities and sororities on campus to this day.
One of the oldest relics in the Johns Hopkins University archives associated with Greek organizations is a timeworn book containing the names of the first Sigma Chi brothers, their names scrawled in ancient ink on tattered pages during their initiation ceremony. Looking at the signatures in the book evokes an image of these young men lining up in a candlelit room, solemnly taking an oath into their new brotherhood. These names, twenty-one in total, mark the first class of Sigma Chi on this campus. The roll book dates back to 1924, making Sigma Chi one of the oldest fraternities on the Hopkins campus. However, according to a pamphlet released by the Inter-Fraternity Council in 2003, the Sigma Chi chapter recognized today was founded on campus just a year prior, in 2002. Where does this gap lie? What happened to Sigma Chi to cause its disappearance from campus?
The answer lies in the headline of a 1989 issue of Greek Rho, Hopkins’ Greek Life newsletter. The newsletter did not have a very long life; it may not have even passed its second issue, most likely because it catered to such a small portion of the Hopkins community—in 1989, roughly 15 percent of the student population was involved in Greek life. However, the insight it provided into the history of Greek life on campus was immense. It represented the culmination of many different Greek organizations working together. The headline for the second issue reads “Sigma Chi or Sigma Phi?” The brothers of Sigma Chi discovered a clause in the national bylaws of the fraternity that stated that all Sigma Chi brothers must believe in God. The brothers of the Hopkins chapter, although mostly Christian, were outraged by the discriminatory nature of the clause. One of their very own was an atheist; according to the clause, he would have to be removed from the fraternity because of his beliefs. “We felt that it was unreasonable to exclude any member of the colony on the basis of religion,” one member stated. And so the chapter, in a unanimous vote, decided to disassociate from the national Sigma Chi chapter, and opted to find another national Greek organization to pledge.
So here they were, a group of young men, dedicated to each other as brothers but separated from their national brotherhood. After meeting with the Inter-Fraternity Council, they found a unique opportunity: Sigma Phi Epsilon. Technically, the Maryland Alpha chapter of SigEp was still active at JHU; however, there were no active brothers currently on campus. The ex-brothers of Sigma Chi saw this as an opportunity. “They were a fraternity without any members, and we had the members but no national fraternity. It was an ideal situation.” By deciding to associate with the national Sigma Phi Epsilon chapter, they also inherited the SigEp fraternity house. The idea of a Greek organization switching its national ties is, indeed, strange, and the entire ordeal was seen as a bit odd by the greater Hopkins community. A joke about the switch even made its way to the in the satire section of the Greek Rho.
But their willingness to make such a drastic change speaks to the progressive thought of the entire Hopkins community at the time; students were so driven against any form of discrimination that a Greek organization was willing to break its ties with their national fraternity because of its rigidity. Sigma Chi National has since amended the clause, leading to the re-colonization of Sigma Chi at Johns Hopkins in 2002, though the brothers of Sigma Chi and Sigma Phi Epsilon probably have no idea that they are cousins.
This anecdote provides only a snippet into the world of Greek life at Hopkins. Hopkins, as with the rest of the country, was diversifying, welcoming women into its undergraduate population in 1970. Its first historically black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, received its charter in 1991. Lambda, an Asian American interest fraternity, came to campus with seven charter members in October, 1994. After the rush season of 1997, they had grown to include 17 active members and seven alumni. The Psi chapter of AEPi also came to campus in October, 1996, colonized by eleven Hopkins men. It is the only Jewish fraternity on campus. Hopkins was embracing diversity, which reflected on the Greek organizations being introduced onto campus.