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the phi beta kappa society traveling exhibit overview of images and text

Phi Beta Kappa


Traveling Exhibit

overview of images and text


The Phi Beta Kappa Key

Phi Beta Kappa is America’s oldest academic honor society and the country’s first Greek-letter society. Its mission is to foster and recognize excellence in undergraduate liberal arts and sciences. The FBK key is the Society’s official insignia and emblem of membership. The original key was a square silver medal engraved on one side with the letters SP, the initials of the Latin words Societas Philosophiae, and on the other side with FBK, the initials of the Greek motto Filosofίa Bίou KubernήthV or “Love of learning is the guide of life.” A pointing finger and three stars symbolized the ambition of the founders and the three distinguishing principles of their Society — friendship, morality, and learning. Later a stem was added to the medal, converting it into a watch key. The contemporary gold key incorporates all of the symbols on the original eighteenth-century medal, and the Society’s founding date, the member’s name, college or university, and year of induction are engraved on the back of each key.


The Christopher Wren Building at the College of William & Mary

Phi Beta Kappa was founded December 5, 1776, at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. The Christopher Wren Building, or simply “College Building,” was the school’s primary academic structure. The founders of the Phi Beta Kappa Society would have studied in its rooms. Construction on the building began August 8, 1695, two years after the school was chartered. The design has long been credited to the famed English architect for whom the building is named. Destroyed several times by fire, the building now appears much as it did in 1732, as FBK’s first members would have recognized it. The Christopher Wren Building is the oldest academic structure still in use in America today and the oldest of the restored public buildings in Williamsburg.

Sources: The College of William & Mary and The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Etching by Professor Thomas Thorne of the College of William & Mary.


John Heath (1758-1810)

John Heath was the son of a prominent Virginia planter studying at the College of William & Mary in 1776. Only 15 years old at the time, he determined to develop a student society that would be much more serious-minded than its predecessors at William & Mary. He was, essentially, the creator and the first president of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. The first college fraternity to bear a Greek-letter name, FBK introduced the essential characteristics of the Greek societies that followed it: an oath of secrecy, a badge, mottoes in Greek and Latin, a code of laws, an elaborate form of initiation, a seal, and a special handshake. Later, Heath became a lawyer and a politician representing Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1793 to 1797. The town of Heathsville in the northern Tidewater region of Virginia is named for him.


The Old Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, Virginia

“On Thursday, the 5th of December in the year of our Lord God one thousand seven hundred and seventy-six and the first of the Commonwealth, a happy spirit and resolution of attaining the important ends of Society entering the minds of John Heath, Thomas Smith, Richard Booker, Armistead Smith, and John Jones, and afterwards seconded by others, prevailed, and was accordingly ratified. …”

— From the minutes of the first FBK meeting

The first meeting of the Phi Beta Kappa Society was held in the Apollo Room of the Old Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, Virginia. The earliest record of the Society, the minutes from this meeting, enumerates the “Founding Fathers,” describes the creation of the FBK key, and gives the text of the “oath of fidelity” taken. It also describes the first election of officers and the plans for the drawing up of a constitution. The organization was created as a secret society so that its founders would have the freedom to discuss any topic they chose. Freedom of inquiry has been a hallmark of FBK ever since.

Image courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation


Original Charter for a FBK Chapter at Yale

In the winter of 1781, when General Charles Cornwallis positioned the British army on the York peninsula for what became the climactic siege of the American Revolutionary War, the College of William & Mary closed. When it reopened a year later, Phi Beta Kappa activities did not resume there. It would have been the end of the organization had the group not earlier agreed to a vision of their only non-Virginian member to establish chapters in New England. Elisha Parmele, a native of Connecticut who had studied at Yale and graduated from Harvard, helped to create chapters at Yale in 1780 and Harvard in 1781, thus ensuring the continuation of the Society. This began FBK’s historic base in New England that expanded to Dartmouth, Union, Bowdoin, and Brown over the next 50 years, and then nationally. Today FBK has 276 chapters in all regions of the country, 52 alumni associations, and more than half a million members.


The Council of 1919

After the initial expansion of Phi Beta Kappa to Yale and Harvard in the 1780s, other chapters were added gradually. The number nationwide stood at 25 in 1883, when the National Council of the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa was created. The legislative body of the Phi Beta Kappa Society is the Council, which convenes every three years to transact business for the Society as a whole and make decisions about the establishment of new chapters. Delegates to the Council are the representatives of FBK chapters and associations. For many years, the Councils were convened at chapter-sheltering colleges or universities. This photo of the Council of 1919, the earliest of its kind, was taken on the steps of Widener Memorial Library at Harvard. More recently, Council meetings have taken place off campus in cities with one or more chapters or associations.


Edward Alexander Bouchet (1852-1918)

In 1874, 10 years after the end of the American Civil War and 80 years before Brown v. Board of Education, Edward Alexander Bouchet became the first African-American graduate of Yale. He ranked sixth in a class of 124 students and was the first African-American elected to membership in the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Bouchet continued to study physics at Yale, and in 1876, he became the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. His accomplishments were remarkable for his time and continue to inspire students today. In 2005, Yale and Howard University created the Edward A. Bouchet Graduate Honor Society to recognize outstanding scholarly achievement and promote diversity and excellence in doctoral education and the professoriate.


Lida A. Mason and Ellen Eliza Hamilton

In 1875, the Phi Beta Kappa chapter at the University of Vermont decided that persons eligible on the ground of scholarship be received as members of the Society without regard to sex. This problem had not arisen before because women had not been admitted to the university until 1871. However, there were now two women graduating with honors, Lida A. Mason (left) and Ellen Eliza Hamilton (right). They became the first female members of FBK. It would be 55 more years before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote, was signed into law, but FBK’s days as a fraternity were ended forever.


Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Ralph Waldo Emerson, widely recognized and celebrated as the father of American Transcendentalism, was a philosopher, poet, essayist, and one of the most powerful and inspiring orators of his day. While not a member of the Society, his 1837 Phi Beta Kappa oration at Harvard, “The American Scholar,” is an essential text for any student of the history of American letters. Oliver Wendell Holmes called it “Our Intellectual Declaration of Independence.” Emerson’s performance on this occasion has become the gold standard for all FBK orators who have followed him in a tradition that our chapters across the country still maintain. The title, and the intellectual spirit it represents, has since been taken up by FBK’s quarterly magazine, The American Scholar.

Image courtesy of the Joel Myerson Collection of Nineteenth-Century American Literature, Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina


The American Scholar

The American Scholar is the venerable but lively quarterly magazine of public affairs, literature, science, history, and culture published by FBK since 1932. In recent years the magazine has won four National Magazine Awards, the industry’s highest honor, and many of its essays and articles have been selected for the yearly Best American anthologies. In 2006, The American Scholar began to publish fiction by such writers as Alice Munro, Ann Beattie, Steven Millhauser, Dennis McFarland, Louis Begley, and David Leavitt. Essays, articles, criticism, and poetry have been mainstays of the magazine for 75 years. Inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous speech, “The American Scholar,” delivered to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard in 1837, the magazine aspires to Emerson’s ideals of independent thinking, self-knowledge, and a commitment to the affairs of the world as well as to books, history, and science.


The Key Reporter

The Key Reporter, published quarterly since 1935, is the national alumni newsletter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. It includes stories about Phi Beta Kappa events and the Society’s broader advocacy efforts, prominent members in the news, and reviews from Phi Beta Kappa’s book critics. In the pages of The Key Reporter, members can keep up with the activities of the Society’s many outreach programs, including academic and literary awards, lectureships, fellowships, professorships, and the visiting scholar program. Each member of the Society has a free lifetime subscription. The Key Reporter is every member’s link to Phi Beta Kappa.


The Phi Beta Kappa Handshake

The Phi Beta Kappa handshake, once a secret sign shared between initiates, has long since passed out of use and into Society lore. In 1831, after anti-Masonic agitation prompted much discussion about the FBK oath, the requirement for secrecy was dropped — an action that probably saved the Society from further open criticism as well as from rivalry with the social fraternities that made their appearance around that time. Afterwards, the secret handshake declined in popularity. John Marshall (left) and William A. Shimer, past secretary of the Society, demonstrate the “secret” handshake in this photo from the 1930s. For those who choose to reenact this part of the ritual of initiation, the proper “grip” is described as follows:

“Each member grasps with the little and ring fingers and the thumb of the right hand the first two fingers of the other member’s right hand. When the hands come together with the fingers spread by twos, thus enabling them to straddle each other before mutually closing on the first two fingers, this handclasp will be found an amazingly facile and fraternal way to shake a FBK hand, although hands are now shaken officially only when members are initiated, and sometimes not even then.”

— From the first issue of The Key Reporter, 1935


The Phi Beta Kappa Procession

Formal academic processions are a time-honored means of public recognition for the graduates whose scholarly achievements they celebrate. The Phi Beta Kappa procession at commencement typically includes only the top 10 percent of a college or university’s candidates for degrees in liberal arts and sciences, that’s about one college senior in a hundred nationwide. This recent FBK procession at Harvardpays homage to the Revolutionary origins of the Society. Since it was founded in 1776, FBK has embraced the principles of freedom of inquiry and liberty of thought and expression. Although laptops have replaced quill pens and instant messaging has replaced the town crier, the ideals of FBK still lay the foundations of personal freedom, scientific inquiry, liberty of conscience, and creative endeavor.

Pictured left to right: Jennifer Morse, Chief Marshal Dr. James Wilkinson, and Kobey Shwayder. Photo Credit: Jon Chase, Harvard News Office


Samuel Langhorne Clemens “Mark Twain” (1835-1910)

American literary lion Mark Twain (front right) received an honorary doctorate of letters and was inducted into FBK at the University of Missouri in 1902. This photo documents that occasion. He had grown up in Missouri and was among the first members inducted in the state he made famous in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The ideal Phi Beta Kappan has demonstrated intellectual integrity, tolerance for other views, and a broad range of interests in the liberal arts and sciences. Most members are elected as undergraduates. Honorary membership is very rarely granted and only to persons who have made substantial lifetime contributions to the liberal arts or sciences.

Each person inducted into the Society shares the distinction of membership with some of the most accomplished Americans in history, including seventeen U.S. Presidents, seven of the nine current U.S. Supreme Court Justices, 131 Nobel Laureates, and many others, such as Glenn Close, John Updike, Rita Dove, Helen Keller, Cynthia Ozick, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Francis Ford Coppola, Peyton Manning, Gloria Steinem, Alexander Graham Bell, Leonard Bernstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Tom Brokaw, Ralph Nader, Paul Robeson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Stephanopoulos, Stephen Sondheim, Condoleeza Rice, Susan Sontag, Henry Kissinger, Booker T. Washington, and Eli Whitney. But famous or not, all of our members have one thing in common — the pursuit of excellence. 

Photo courtesy of the University of Missouri-Columbia Archives


Phi Beta Kappa in Popular Culture

In the more than 230 years since the Society was founded, Phi Beta Kappa and its signature gold key have become pop culture icons as American as apple pie and Mickey Mouse. The name “Phi Beta Kappa” is now a common expression for “excellence” in any profession or endeavor. References to Phi Beta Kappa appear daily in American newspapers and in other popular media in all parts of the country. Melissa Jo Peltier, a writer and two-time Emmy winner, recently told the Associated Press that an Emmy was the highest form of recognition. She said, “It’s like Phi Beta Kappa.”