The early history of Pi Lambda Phi can be divided into two periods. The first, known as the Founders’ Period, began with the inception of the fraternity at Yale University in 1895. In a few short years, the fraternity grew to a position of enviable promise and achievement, only to teetter and collapse with equal suddenness.

The second, the Revitalization Period, dates from 1908, when the Alpha chapter was established at Columbia University. The current Pi Lambda Phi Fraternity emerged from this chapter—young, vibrant and energetic—into its current status among the great collegiate fraternities.

Founders’ Period

In 1895 at Yale University, a group of men were denied the right of admission into college fraternities because of their religious and racial backgrounds. The leaders of this group, our Founding Fathers, were Frederick Manfred Werner, Louis Samter Levy, and Henry Mark Fisher. These three visionaries had a dream of a fraternity where neither sect nor creed shall ever act as a bar to admission for any man. In the preamble of the Founders’ Bulletin, dated March 1895, it states: “We students at American colleges appreciating the need of a fraternity which shall eliminate all sectarianism do hereby associate ourselves in this Pi Lambda Phi Fraternity.”

The Founders sought to create a “college fraternity on lines broader and more liberal than those employed” at the time. They wanted to see “a fraternity in which all men were brothers, no matter what their religion; a fraternity in which ability, open-mindedness, farsightedness, and a progressive, forward-looking attitude [would] be recognized as the basic attributes.”

Establishing the Ideals

From the beginning of Pi Lambda Phi, our Founding Fathers resisted tendencies toward discrimination. They resisted the outside suggestion that it would be a good idea to have “twice as many Gentiles as Jews” in chapters.

They went on to establish the idea that joining Pi Lambda Phi should be based on your principles, not your race or religion: “Your argument (for rushing) should consist of your principles, your cause and your aim… establish a brotherly feeling, which we mean to exist between every individual member of Pi Lambda Phi.” These ideas expressed to chapters during the late 19th century are identical with those found throughout Pi Lambda Phi’s existence today.

Pi Lambda Phi was established as a protest and living example against the tendency of fraternities to discriminate against students for religious and racial reasons.

The Original Chapters

The “general” chapter at Yale was known as Alpha; Columbia (1896) was designated Beta; the C.C.N.Y. (1896) chapter was lettered Gamma. According to the C.C.N.Y. Microcosm, the Lambda Chapter at Cornell and Nu at M.I.T. were the next two chapters. There is also evidence of a chapter at the University of Pennsylvania from 1896-97. No further information on the early University of Chicago or Union College chapters can be found.

Revitalization Period

In 1908, Max Frank, Moritz Jagtndorf and Joseph Hyman, students at Columbia, set out to establish a non-sectarian fraternity on their campus. They succeeded in interesting Brother Arthur Diamant and Brother Arthur Schwartz, and in obtaining from them permission to use the name of Pi Lambda Phi. Cornell was installed as Delta Chapter in 1911, and from there Zeta at Pennsylvania (1912), Epsilon at Michigan (1913), Gamma Sigma at Pittsburgh (1915), Lambda at Lehigh (1915) and Theta at Steven’s Institute of Technology (1916) were chartered.

The original Fraternity magazine, The Frater, published its first issue in 1915. The Frater was published four times a year and included articles on every chapter of Pi Lambda Phi.

During the fall of 1916, a group of alumni organized a convention to discuss centralization of authority, administration, and general national policy. The result was a new national constitution, which provided for government of the Fraternity through a National Council, similar to the way we operate today.

Pi Lambda Phi first expanded outside the Northeast United States in 1919 with the Omicron chapter at the University of Chicago. The following year Pi Lambda Phi became an international fraternity as the Eta chapter was established at McGill University in Montreal.

By the 1920s, Pi Lambda Phi had established an annual summer conference and an annual convention in December to address the business of the fraternity. Many of these gatherings were highlighted by famous keynote speakers and elaborate social gatherings.

The founding of the Endowment Fund marked a fraternity milestone. In 1924, the “Knights of the Cavern” donated $1,640, proceeds from a theater benefit. The purpose of the endowment fund was to assist chapters with financial issues, create scholarships and establish foundations for the benefit of the fraternity and to lend financial assistance to fraters.

In 1928, a flourishing Pi Lambda Phi was living up to the expectations of the Founding Fathers. After receiving an invitation to our 1928 Founders’ Day celebration, Henry Fisher responded:

“As I look back over 30 years I recall the humble beginnings of our fraternity. I realize that we, who founded Pi Lambda Phi, built better than we knew. The fraternity has grown beyond our fondest dreams. That this has come to pass is due, of course, entirely to those who came after the founders and who have labored so zealously. Need I tell you how deeply I appreciate the spirit that actuated Founders’ Day and may I venture to hope that from each year there may come increased devotion to the aims of our fraternity.”

World War II and Beyond

February 1, 1941 witnessed the union with Phi Beta Delta Fraternity, which had been founded by eight men at Columbia University in 1912. The merger was successful because Phi Beta Delta was similar to Pi Lambda Phi in many areas. Both fraternities shared a belief in non-sectarianism and placed a heavy emphasis on scholastic achievement.

At the time of the union, Pi Lambda Phi had 20 active chapters, while Phi Beta Delta had 16. Deducting duplicate chapters, the united fraternity at the time of the merger had a total of 33 active undergraduate chapters. For over half a century now, many of the chapters from Phi Beta Delta have remained strong chapters of our fraternity.

The fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Pi Lambda Phi was scheduled for March 21, 1945, but had to be postponed due to the war and the 3,000 Pilam brothers in the armed forces. The post-war era helped to revive a fraternal system that struggled to keep afloat during the Second World War. The influx of servicemen returning to civilian life and college campuses provided a well-needed boost. Pilam chapters that were forced to suspend their operations due to the war were revitalized with renewed commitment to the ideals and principles on which they were founded.

In November of 1960, Beta Sigma Tau Fraternity merged into Pi Lambda Phi. Beta Sigma Tau as founded in May of 1948, at the National Conference of Intercultural Fraternities held in Chicago, IL. It was the first national interracial and interreligious college social fraternity to be organized following World War II. Although Beta Sigma Tau expanded rapidly to seventeen college campuses from 1948 to 1952, only six chapters remained by 1959. Of these six chapters, three were voted into the brotherhood by the Pilam active chapters. These three chapters were located at Ohio State University, Ohio Wesleyan University and Baldwin Wallace University. Unfortunately, Ohio State and Ohio Wesleyan did not survive the early 60s.

The 1960s were characterized by campus unrest brought about by the Vietnam War and the controversies it provoked. It was a time of “dropping out,” and this included fraternity participation. Some chapters literally disappeared overnight, and the age of drug experimentation was ushered in on many campuses. Despite the times, Pi Lambda Phi continued to courageously lead the way in eliminating prejudice. In April 1969, we reactivated our Virginia Omega Alpha Chapter at the University of Virginia (UVA), which had been forced to close during World War II. True to our Creed, Pi Lambda Phi initiated the first African-American into an NIC fraternity on that campus.

On December 12, 1972, Beta Sigma Rho merged into Pilam. Beta Sigma Rho was organized under the name Beta Samach, the Greek Beta and the Hebrew Samach suggesting the application of the Greek society idea to the social and cultural life of the Jewish undergraduate.

In 1991, in order to facilitate modernization of our organization, we adopted a new International Constitution that among other things reduced the unwieldy size of the National Council from forty-two members.
In March 1995, the fraternity celebrated its milestone 100th anniversary with a tribute to our Founders, at the site of our founding, Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Second Century Moving Forward

Now, as the second century of our history unfolds, we are still facing countless challenges. Faculties and administrations are questioning the relevance of fraternities on today’s college campuses. Alcohol and drug abuse, excesses of hazing during what had been the traditional orientation period for new members have spotlighted some fraternities as reluctant dinosaurs.

As Pi Lambda Phi moves well into the twenty-first century, we must strive to be the innovative fraternity that Henry Mark Fisher, Frederick Manfred Werner, and Louis Samter Levy laid the cornerstone for in 1895. There has never been a better time to lead courageously in the fight to create a better world for all people…in the fight to eliminate prejudice. The legacy is in our hands.