The War Chapters: Fort Des Moines and Camp Howard

It can be stated, without too great a fear of being grossly incorrect, that the history of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Psi Chapter, established at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, begins with the provisional wartime chapters of Fort Des Moines, Iowa, and Camp Howard, Washington, D.C.

African-American captains at the Officer Reserve Training Camp at Fort Des Moines army post on Oct. 15, 1917. Photographer: Hebard Showers, Des Moines. (Photo: State Historical Society of Iowa)

World War I (1914–1918) greatly disrupted United States society, especially collegiate life where men were conscripted for service in the national army. In the words of Lieutenant Jesse S. Heslip, Basileus of Omega’s Fort Des Moines chapter, “during the great war…changes are taking place in every organization that depends upon the male elements of nations.” Many Black men considered military service as a path towards racial equality despite serving among segregated ranks. At the officially named “The Fort Des Moines Training Camp for Colored Officers” (June 18 — October 15, 1917) — the first officers training camp for Black Americans — six-hundred twenty-nine men earned commissions ranging from 2nd Lieutenant to Captain, including two of Omega’s founders, Frank Coleman and Edgar Amos Love, who earned their commissions as First Lieutenant and Chaplin respectively.

Established under the Fraternity’s 5th Grand Basileus James C. McMorris, the Fort Des Moines War Chapter became a community of Brothers who identified other men “qualified to partake of, and live up to the spirit of Omega.” Wade Hampton Powell from Blocton, Alabama, was indubitably qualified for such a life and imbued with such a spirit; before the Camp for Colored Officers disbanded, he became the first Morehouse student initiated into Omega.

Morehouse College students at Fort Des Moines. Annual catalogue of Morehouse College, 1917/18.

A total of one-hundred and twenty-five Omega Men served during the War: ten of which were initiated at the Fort Des Moines War Chapter, and twenty-eight were initiated at Camp Howard.

By 1918 the U.S. Military was thoroughly engaged in the War efforts, but its officers were untrained and unprepared to meet battlefield demands. To correct this, the War Department established the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) to provide six to eight weeks of military training to men on college campuses. A total of one-hundred and fifty-seven colleges and universities, which included fifteen HBCUs, were chosen to host SATC programs. Howard University was not selected as a host, but it petitioned to hold a special camp where Black students from over seventy colleges and universities could receive officer training. A total of four-hundred and fifty-seven students and professors attended Howard’s special SATC camp, which ran from August 1 to September 16, 1918.

Camp Howard, Omega’s provisional chapter which resulted from “an interesting year at Howard University,” was established on September 1, 1918 (this initial meeting was probably the only meeting). At the Camp, Morehouse student Harvey Miles Smith from Crawford, Georgia, joined Omega alongside a cadre of men who proved integral in expanding the Fraternity throughout the southern United States. As highlighted by Robert Gill:

The SATC program (Students Army Training Corps) was a War Department special training program established in 1918 for college students…In recognition of the potential offered by the SATC unit at Howard University for the expansion of fraternities in the South, a temporary chapter, called the Camp Howard Chapter, was authorized at Howard University in 1918 to qualify SATC students for Fraternity membership…Twenty-seven men from eight colleges, including Biddle (now Johnson C. Smith University), Fisk, Morehouse, Shaw, Talladega, Virginia Union, and West Virginia were inducted. They constituted the nucleus of a group which finally whittled away the barrier to the establishment of fraternities at Negro colleges in the South.

The Camp Howard initiates, Smith included, brought the Fraternity back to their respective campuses. Between 1911 and 1918 only three Omega chapters were founded; by comparison between 1919 and 1921, twelve chapters were created following the disbandment of the Camp, five by Camp initiates, one of which was Eta Chapter (1919) in Atlanta.

Harvey Miles Smith. (Photo courtesy of the Smith Family)

Eta was founded “as a result of the influence” of Laurence Raymond Harper, Horace Aurelius Hodges, Harvey Miles Smith, and Clinton Ellsworth Warner. Harper, Hodges, and Smith were all initiated at Camp Howard. Eta — composed of students from Clark College, Atlanta University, and Morehouse College — eventually separated into localized campus chapters, which resulted in Psi Chapter at Morehouse.

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