PITTSBURG, Kan. — When Nathaniel Simmons was looking for colleges, Pittsburg State University had two of the three things that mattered to him.

It had a good track and field program, which was important because Simmons wasn’t looking to play football any longer, and its academic program in construction management had a stellar record of job placement for graduates.

Simmons, now a junior majoring in construction engineering technology, can finally check the third must-have off his list: a way for minority students, particularly black students, to get involved through an organization he had known secondhand his entire life.

Gamma Chi, the local chapter of the historically African-American fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., has been reactivated at Pittsburg State. Simmons, its secretary, couldn’t be happier.

“It was surreal,” he said. “It was like, ‘Are we really starting up?’ But we’re here, and it was a tremendous feeling.”

Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek fraternity established for African-American men, was founded at Cornell University in 1906 by seven college men who “recognized the need for a strong bond of brotherhood among African descendants in this country,” according to fraternity history. The fraternity has been interracial since 1945.

Growing up in Kansas City, Simmons had been around Alphas his entire life.

They were his coaches and teachers, and they showed him what good, strong men could do for their community. On the national level, notable Alphas include figures such as musicians Duke Ellington and Lionel Richie, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Olympic champion Jesse Owens, and civil rights activists Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass, the latter of whom was awarded membership posthumously.

“I grew up with their guidance and kind of modeled myself after them,” Simmons said. “I knew an Alpha man was what I wanted to be. They helped me to see what a true leader looks like.”

‘Very impactful’

Pitt State’s chapter, Gamma Chi, was founded on April 3, 1948, but it hasn’t always been continuously active.

Damon Broadus, a Pitt State alum who serves as board president of the Brothers of Gamma Chi Educational Foundation, helped lead the recent effort to reactivate. The process took three years and was assisted by Pitt State officials Jason Kegler, assistant vice president of student life, and Steve Erwin, vice president of student life.

Broadus was a sophomore at PSU when the chapter went through a previous reactivation phase — in 1989, after having been shuttered since the early 1970s.

“There were men who looked like me and were going through the same struggle,” he said in a statement about the importance of joining Alpha Phi Alpha. “It was a cultural identity we could identify with in a small, white, rural community. I can honestly say it made all the difference. Some of the young men from Kansas City that I started with but who didn’t join were gone by the next semester. They didn’t have a group of men to identify with. It was very impactful to my development.”

The fraternity’s mission is to develop leaders, promote brotherhood and academic excellence, and provide service and advocacy to the community, Simmons said.

To support that mission, current PSU members have already helped with a registration drive during Pitt State’s back-to-school community fair, during which 104 people registered to vote, he said. Members also attended the fraternity’s regional convention in Indiana last spring, and Simmons himself just returned from an international leadership conference and retreat in Canada.

The newly reorganized chapter is still small, with only four members. But they’re in full planning mode for events they want to host this year. Those include events promoted by the national organization — Project Alpha, a sex education program, and Go to High School/Go to College, a campaign to encourage middle school and high school students to earn their diplomas and enroll in postsecondary education.

Simmons said he’s hopeful the presence of Gamma Chi at Pitt State will encourage more minority students to become involved as well as attract prospective students who want to see a diverse campus.

“It all goes back to diversity,” he said. “It makes you feel more involved and in tune with the university instead of a standout who doesn’t belong.”

Emily Younker is the assistant metro editor at the Joplin Globe. Contact: eyounker AT joplinglobe DOT com.