For Baltimore City Councilman John Bullock, so much of being an Alpha Phi Alpha member is about remembering the men like Thurgood Marshall and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who came before him.
But it’s also about tackling current issues, he said, and making progress on police-community relations, health care access and voter participation.
“It’s not just about our history,” Bullock said. “It’s about what we do today. That will be someone’s history one day.”
About 4,000 people, many sporting black-and-gold suit jackets and ties, are gathering at the Baltimore Convention Center this weekend as part of Alpha Phi Alpha’s biannual general convention. The nation’s first black, Greek-letter organization focused on the theme “The Urgency of Now.”
“What we’re seeing right now, with the recent election of the president and with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is the roll-back of rights,” said fraternity spokesman Joshua Harris. “We’re taking 20- to 50-year backward steps with the progress we’ve seen. We have to make sure we’re being vigilant … and make sure that those rights aren’t being taken away from people.”
It’s the first time Baltimore has hosted the convention since 1991 — the same year the fraternity’s headquarters moved to the city. For some, it felt significant to have the convention here once again, just two years removed from the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody and the ensuing civil unrest.
“Some things happen at the right time and occasion,” said Henry Ponder, who was the fraternity’s president the last time the convention was held in Baltimore. “We want to do something in this city to let everyone know that the Alpha men were here, they heard what happened and they want to do something about it.”
There was a focus on the need for activism throughout the convention, which began Wednesday and runs through Sunday. One workshop was titled “New Era Civil Rights: Activism, Advocacy, and Alliance for the Culture.”
Activism is part of what drives Alpha Phi Alpha, said Okey Enyia.
“Our founders were visionaries in that they wanted to create a safe space for men of African descent to achieve their greatest potential as scholars, as advocates, as voices for the voiceless,” Enyia said. “That’s our bedrock.”
Harris said the convention also puts a spotlight on the importance of education, with seminars about preparing for degrees in law or medicine.
“We need people at all levels. We need people who are activists, and who are willing to put their bodies on the line in protest,” he said. “But we also need people who are policymakers, who are looking at the laws and making the changes necessary. … We need people to be academics and educators, who can be in higher education and teach better strategies and tactics.”
In the month leading up to the convention, Alpha Phi Alpha members did community service work around the city, Harris said. Men collected books and read to children at the Penn North Kids Safe Zone and handed out grooming kits to the homeless, among other projects.
Bullock said that beyond the seminars and service, it’s nice to meet with men he hasn’t seen since his college years. One night, he said, some of the younger men put on a step dance show — something Bullock used to participate in.
When the college-age men started talking about things that were done “back in the olden days,” Bullock laughed as he realized they meant the time when he was in school.
The group also elected a new general treasurer and handed out awards to various members. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu received the organization’s highest nonmember honor for his decision to remove the city’s Confederate monuments.
It was the first Alpha Phi Alpha convention for Alonzo Cee, a rising senior at Elon University in North Carolina. He said he joined the fraternity because he saw a “group of men that were about something bigger than themselves.”
“They created a brotherhood on a predominantly white campus and tried to be out on the forefront of the major issues,” Cee said.
Spending the week with thousands of other members has been “inspiring,” he said. “It’s good for us to be here in Baltimore and to have this time as brothers.”