A man stands on the steps in front of Sikes Hall holding the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. history book surrounded by seven other men.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Chi Zeta chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc., the first Black Greek-letter organization chartered at Clemson University. Roughly 150 active brothers have been initiated through the chapter since the first 12 crossed the burning sands on April 6, 1974.

That day ended a challenging yet rewarding six-week initiation process for the members of the charter line, which originally started with 13 pledges. Despite one dropping out before initiation, the line stuck with its moniker, The Mean Thirteen. And one of Omega Psi Phi’s nearly 800 chapters nationwide was born.

“We were glad that we could get started,” says George Harkness ’75, a member of the charter line. “We didn’t understand what we were getting into initially. But it was a very unique experience.”

A group of men wearing Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. T-shirts hold up "the hooks."

It wasn’t always easy — “there were some issues with folks who didn’t appreciate us,” recalls Dr. James Tolley ’77, part of The Six Million Dollar Men initiated in Spring 1976 — but the chapter leaned on the fraternity’s cardinal principles: manhood, scholarship, perseverance and uplift. From the chapter’s organic camaraderie came a sense of community.

“Being Black on Clemson’s campus during that time, we were already in a fraternity or a sorority just because you’re Black,” says Harkness, who now works as a construction project manager in Fayetteville, Georgia. “We naturally gravitated to one another because that was our support.”

Those principles served active brothers well during their undergraduate years and beyond. Gundi Simmons ’08, the lone member of the Last Man Standing line initiated in Spring 2004, overcame a narcolepsy diagnosis while attending Clemson and found his calling as a local Realtor.

Tolley received Omega Psi Phi’s Sixth District Scholarship, which greatly assisted him during medical school. Newly married at the time, Tolley says, “We were in financial straits, and the district really helped us out.” In 1985, Tolley graduated from the Medical University of South Carolina, where he enjoyed a nearly 30-year career as an emergency medicine physician.

The fraternity has continued providing scholarship opportunities.

In 2013, as part of a University campaign to celebrate 50 years of integration by creating 50 endowment scholarships, Chi Zeta became the first organization to fully fund its $25,000 endowment. The chapter has since established another endowment, the Dr. William C. Clinkscales Sr. ’74 Diversity Scholarship, named after its late founding advisor. As of last summer, those endowments have grown to more than $130,000 of combined financial support for undergraduate students.

A group of men sit and stand. Some of them hold cutouts of the Greek letters Omega Psi Phi.

Brotherhood, though, is the essence of the fraternity’s foundation. Omega Psi Phi is derived from the initials of the Greek phrase meaning “friendship is essential to the soul,” which doubles as its motto. It adds to the chapter’s uniqueness, Simmons says.

“It’s not just, ‘Oh, we’re fraternity brothers, and we know each other, and we party or whatever it is,’ Simmons adds. “It’s intimate relationships. These people, we know their families.”

Group texts among chapter brothers happen daily. Line reunions are routine. Simmons says he recently attended the wedding of a fellow brother along with active brothers from five different decades. Harkness, also an ordained minister, officiated the ceremony.

“There’s a certain automatic acceptance because there’s an automatic understanding,” Tolley says, “and that’s what the brotherhood is all about.”

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