On December 5, 1776, a group of five young men who were then studying at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, met to create a secret society, at once intellectual and social in purpose. The Greek initials for the society’s motto, “Love of learning is the guide of life,” form the name Phi Beta Kappa.

John Heath, the first President of Phi Beta Kappa, gave his President’s greeting to new members in 1779 which reads in part: “Here … you are to indulge in matters of speculation, that freedom of inquiry that ever dispels the clouds of falsehood by the radiant sunshine of truth….”  In their clandestine meetings, the members seriously debated a host of questions, such as “Whether a wise state hath any interest nearer at heart then the education of the Youth.” The establishment soon afterward of chapters at Yale and Harvard insured that Phi Beta Kappa would survive the arrival of General Cornwallis’s troops at Yorktown, near Williamsburg in 1780.

After the Revolution, Phi Beta Kappa chapters began to increase and the number of initiates continued to grow, both from the ranks of the students, and distinguished alumni. In 1875, Phi Beta Kappa enlarged its membership to include women. That same year, the first African American member was elected at Yale.

A little over a century after its founding, more than twenty five branches of the Phi Beta Kappa Society were in existence, and it was felt that a national structure was needed to bring together the scattered chapters into some uniformity. In 1883, the organization known as the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa was founded; it has its headquarters today in Washington, D.C. The Society now has over 500,000 living members, elected over the years by the 286 chapters at colleges and universities throughout the country. In addition, more than fifty local alumni associations lend the Society their support and provide members an opportunity for a life-long relationship with Phi Beta Kappa and its activities and goals on the community level.

The Richmond Association of Phi Beta Kappa is a voluntary organization affiliated with the Epsilon Chapter of the University of Richmond and the Zeta Chapter of Randolph-Macon College.  The Association is a non-profit organization which opens its membership to all members of Phi Beta Kappa who live or work in the central Virginia area.  Its main objective is to promote outstanding scholarship by awarding high school seniors as many scholarships as contributions to the Phi Beta Kappa Scholarship Fund affords.

As you can see, Phi Beta Kappa continues to take great pride in its origins. It retains a number of the symbols that were devised for it at the time when the American Republic was coming into being. The present Phi Beta Kappa key, for example, virtually reproduces the design originated by the young founders of the Society at William and Mary. On the front, it bears the Greek letters ΦΒΚ (Phi Beta Kappa), the initials of the words beginning with these three letters meaning “Love of learning is the guide of life.” The three stars in the upper left-hand corner on this side (point to the banner) symbolize the aims of the Society: Friendship, Morality and Literature (or Scholarship).  A pointing hand in the lower right-hand corner stands for aspiration. On the reverse side are inscribed the letters S and P, which stand for the Society’s second motto, the Latin words Societas Philosophiae, meaning “philosophical society.” Below them appears the date of the founding of the first chapter: December 5, 1776; the member’s name and electing chapter are engraved above.

Although Phi Beta Kappa ceased to be a secret society over one hundred and fifty years ago, tradition has preserved two “secret” signs which are shared with initiates. When members met, they greeted each other by drawing the backs of the index and middle fingers of the right hand across the lips from left to right; thus, apparently, affirming that the lips were sealed. They followed this sign with a handshake, one of the traditional forms which is demonstrated to initiates at the end of the ceremony of initiation. The Society’s symbols and purposes are now well known across the land. These purposes were eloquently summarized in the following statement by one of the Society’s most eminent members, Charles Evans Hughes, the late Chief Justice of the Supreme Court:

“The particular interest of Phi Beta Kappa is in liberal education…. Intensive critical study of educational aims and methods has found nothing to take its place. It means the development by careful training of the capacity to appreciate what has been done and thought, the ability to make worthwhile appraisals of achievements, doctrines, theories, proposals. It is liberal because it emancipates; it signifies freedom from the tyranny of ignorance, and, from what is worse, the dominion of folly…. [Phi Beta Kappa] holds aloft the old banner of scholarship, and to the students who have turned aside from the easier paths and by their talent and fidelity have proved themselves to be worthy, it gives the fitting recognition of a special distinction.”