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Union University and Early Southern Expansion

By Towner Blackstock (Davidson 1994), Curator of Archives

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On February 5, 1851, Phi Gamma Delta’s Grand Chapter at Jefferson College, Pennsylvania granted a charter to students at Union University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  This chapter would go on to take an important leadership role in the expansion of the Fraternity in the years leading up to the Civil War, while leaving behind a difficult historical record to unravel.

The Fraternity’s Constitution originally provided that "The power of granting charters shall belong alone to the Grand Chapter at Jefferson College . . . ." However, the Founders did not anticipate the difficulties of expansion. After 1852, only three of the six chapters remained: Jefferson, Washington, and Union. The fraternity needed an expansion windfall.

The Grand Chapter minutes of June 1, 1854 state "A very interesting communication from Union Chapter was read. On motion, the extension of the Order in the South was left to the judgment of Union Chapter." Then at a special meeting on February 2, 1855, the Grand Chapter determined "to send four charters to Union Chapter with the privilege of filling in all blanks, etc." The result of this division of responsibility? A gain of eight chapters in just two years.

The minutes of the Grand Chapter, while not always complete, do provide a few leads regarding which chapter issued which charter. Jefferson minutes indicate the approval of Marietta College, followed by the arrival of letters from the newly established chapters at the University of Mississippi and the University of Alabama, both granted by Union. Jefferson apparently gave the short-lived charter for Centre College in Kentucky, even though Centre's legate (installing officer) had transferred from the Alabama chapter.

In 1856 Jefferson granted charters to Indiana Asbury (known today as DePauw) and Alabama’s Howard College (now called Samford University). It is unclear who issued the charter that year for Bethel College, Kentucky.

The Grand Chapter received an interesting letter of introduction from Baylor University in Independence, Texas, dated May 18, 1856. "Our chapter (as you are aware) was granted by the Union University Chapter at Murfreesboro, Tenn., and we were organized into a chapter consisting of six members by Prof. Morgan [Gilbert Morgan, Union 1855] on the 8th of April last . . . ." It appears that for the most part, only brothers who graduated from the Union chapter requested charters from there.

The letter from Baylor went on to read, "the name of the chapter here is Tryon Chapter . . ." in honor of a founding member of the University board of trustees. This naming scheme seems particular to Union chapters, and was perpetuated in at least one other location: Alabama determined to call themselves the "Enilada chapter." The origins of such names are unknown. Greek-letter names were apparently not used for the first years of the Fraternity. Antebellum correspondence and minutes always refer to a chapter by the name of the town or school, although the 1856 catalogue assigned each chapter a Greek-letter name. The Grand Chapter minutes first mention Greek-letter names during the Civil War.

Dividing expansion responsibilities between two chapters brought more than just new chapters and strange names; it also meant lost information. In one example, after reporting to the 1856 Convention that the University of Mississippi chapter had closed, the Grand Chapter apparently forgot the chapter had even existed. Members were not listed in the 1856 catalogue. Nor did the antebellum Mississippi chapter appear on any roster of chapters, even after the 1890s when three brothers from that chapter were added to the membership rolls. That same 1856 Convention report noted a chapter at "Bailey University" in Texas (they meant Baylor), and mentioned a chapter that had briefly existed in 1852 at "Washington College" in Maryville, Tennessee. Documentation, including the original Grand Chapter minutes of 1852, shows that the chapter actually existed at Maryville College.

Such difficulties in the record suggest some fascinating possibilities. The Grand Chapter minutes of July 22, 1856 state "letter from Milledgeville read." Up to that time, no chapter was known to exist at a college or in a town called Milledgeville. However, it was the name of Georgia’s state capitol, and the location of Oglethorpe University. James Woodrow (Jefferson 1849) had just returned there after earning his doctorate in Europe; he remained a professor at Oglethorpe through 1860. While he may have sent the correspondence, Grand Chapter minutes typically indicated letters from graduates by the person’s name. They denoted letters from chapters by using school name or location. So did Union or Jefferson establish Phi Gamma Delta at Oglethorpe, only to have it die out quickly like at Nashville and Mississippi? The lack of any further documentation makes this but a speculation.

We have better records regarding other "lost" chapters. An unsigned article in the Phi Gamma Deltamagazine of May, 1879 revealed the story of the original University of Mississippi chapter, and also described a chapter at Soule University, Chappell Hill, Texas. The article unfortunately did not mention any sources. William Chamberlin, in his 1926 classic The History of Phi Gamma Delta, Tomos Beta, doubted the existence of a chapter at Soule. However, he overlooked several critical, documented facts that legitimatize the article’s claims, most notably the propensity for error in Grand Chapter records, and the sharing of charter-granting power between Jefferson and Union. It appears that a chapter did indeed exist at Soule, and that it came to exist through the efforts of Union University, just as that chapter granted charters to at least three other southern colleges.

Had it not shared chartering powers with Union, the Grand Chapter might have made history easier to discern. But this action helped increase the size and prestige of Phi Gamma Delta. It also may have saved the Fraternity from an early extinction, or obscurity.

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