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Origins of the Greek Letter Fraternity: Phi Beta Kappa



[College of William and Mary]
An aerial view of the modern
College of William and Mary.
[College of William and Mary]









Imagine it. The year is 1776 and revolution is in the air. The stirrings are more than just political, however, they are also in the hearts of five individuals who want something more than a loose association of friendship. They long for the chivalrous time when knights were cast in the forge of honor, servitude, and brotherhood. Or perhaps for the day of the Eleusinian Mysteries in Greece full of daring rites of passage granted only to the clean of hand and the pure of heart.

The fiery hearth of the Apollo Room cast a cheerful glow of warmth on this group of young students of the College of William and Mary. They had gathered at the Raleigh Tavern in the town of old Williamsburg on this cold December night to discuss an ideal so new to them yet as old as time itself.

The last of the lingering guests had brought to a close their discussion of Virginia politics and had departed for the night, leaving the comfort of the fireplace to John Heath and four of his closest friends. The business of the evening could now be transacted with the secrecy for which it deserved.

[The Raleigh Tavern]
A sketch of the Raleigh Tavern from
the reconstructed city of Old Williamsburg.
[The Apollo Room]
The Apollo Room in the restored Raleigh Tavern.












Heath confided to his friends the dream which he had nurtured for some time, and enthusiastically they seconded it and set about making it a reality . . . a secret society with a Greek name and a motto! A ritual and a grip!

Frienship, Morality, Learning--these would be the principles symbolized by the three stars on the medal adopted as the insignia of their membership--mark of their leaders!

When the embers of the fire cast weird shadows across the Apollo Room as Heath and his newly accepted "brothers" arose to leave, Phi Beta Kappa had come into existence, and the first Greek-letter fraternity had been formed on the North American continent.


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