March 9, 1856
Sigma Alpha Epsilon was founded March 9, 1856 at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. Its eight founders included five seniors. Noble Leslie DeVotie, John Barratt Rudulph, Nathan Elams Cockrell, John Webb Kerr, and Wade Foster, and three juniors, Samuel Marion Dennis, Abner Edwin Patton and Thomas Chappell Cook. Their leader was DeVotie who had written the ritual, devised the grip and chosen the name. The badge was designed by Rudulph. Of all existing fraternities today, Sigma Alpha Epsilon is the only one founded in the ante-bellum South.
Founded in a time of growing and intense sectional feeling, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, although it determined at the outset to extend to other colleges, confined its growth to the southern states. Extension was vigorous, however, and by the end of 1857 the fraternity counted seven chapters. Its first national convention met in the summer of 1858 at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, with four of its eight chapters in attendance. By the time of the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, fifteen chapters had been established.
The fraternity had fewer than four hundred members when the Civil War began. Of those, 369 went to war for the Confederacy and seven fought with the Union forces. Every member of the chapters at Hampden-Sydney, Georgia Military Institute, Kentucky Military Institute an d Oglethorpe University fought for the gray. Members from the Columbian College, William and Mary and Bethel (KY) were in both armies. Seventy members of the fraternity lost their lives in the War, including Noble Leslie DeVotie, who is officially recorded in the annals of the War as the first man on either side to give his live.
The miracle in the history of Sigma Alpha Epsilon is that it survived that great sectional conflict. when the smoke of the battle had cleared, only one chapter, at tiny Columbian College in Washington, D.C., survived, and it died soon thereafter.
When a few of the young veterans returned to the Georgia Military Institute and found their little college burned to the ground, they decided to go to Athens, Georgia, to enter the state university there. It vas the founding of the University of Georgia chapter at the end of 1865 that led to the fraternity’s revival. Soon other chapters came back to life, and in 1867 the first post-war convention was held at Nashville, Tennessee, where a half dozen revived chapters planned the fraternity’s future growth.
The Reconstruction years were cruel to the South, and southern colleges and their fraternities shared in the general malaise of the region. In the 1870s and early 1880s more than a score of new chapters were formed, some of them in exceedingly frail institutions. Older chapters died as fast as new ones were established. By 1886 the fraternity had charted 49 chapters, but scarcely a dozen could be called active. Two of the 49 were in the North. After much discussion and not a little dissent, the first northern chapter had been established at Pennsylvania College, now Gettysburg College, in 1883, and a second was placed at Mt. Union College in Ohio two years later.
It was in 1886 that things took a turn for the better. That autumn a 16-year-old youngster by the name of Harry Bunting entered Southwestern Presbyterian University in Clarksville, Tennessee, and was initiated by the young Tennessee Zeta chapter there that had previously initiated two of his brothers. When Sigma Alpha Epsilon took in Harry Bunting, it caught a comet by the tail.
In just eight years, under the enthusiastic guidance of Harry Bunting and his younger brother, George, Sigma Alpha Epsilon experienced a renaissance. Together they prodded SAE chapters to enlarge their membership; they wrote encouraging articles in the fraternity’s quarterly journal, The Record, promoting better chapter standards; and above all they undertook an almost incredible program of expansion of the fraternity, resurrecting old chapters in the South (including the mother chapter at Alabama) and founding new ones in the North and West. In an explosion of growth, the Buntings single-handedly were responsible for nearly fifty chapters of SAE.
When Harry Bunting founded the Northwestern University chapter in 1894, he initiated as a charter member William Collin Levere, a remarkable young man whose enthusiasm for the fraternity matched Bunting’s. To Levere Bunting passed the torch of leadership, and for the next three decades it was the spirit of “Billy” Levere that dominated SAE and brought the fraternity to maturity.
“Billy” did everything. He was twice elected national president, served as the fraternity’s first full-time executive secretary and chapter visitation officer (1912-27), edited its quarterly magazine and several editions of the catalog and directory of membership and published a monumental three volume history of the fraternity in 1911. It is small wonder than when Levere died February 22, 1927, the fraternity’s supreme council decided to name their new national headquarters building the Levere Memorial Temple. Construction of the Temple, an immense Gothic structure located a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan and across from the Northwestern University campus, was started in 1929, and the building was dedicated at Christmastime, 1930.
When the supreme council met regularly in the early 1930s at the Temple, educator John O. Moseley, the fraternity’s national president, lamented that “we have in the Temple a magnificent school-house. Why can we not have a school?” Accordingly, the economic depression notwithstanding, in the summer of 1935 the fraternity’s first leadership school was held under the direction of Dr. Moseley. The first such workshop in the fraternity world, it was immensely successful, and today nearly every fraternity holds such a school. The leadership is unquestionably the best service SAE provides to its undergraduates who come to Evanston in regimental numbers each year.
It was probably John Moseley more than any other whose leadership carried Sigma Alpha Epsilon forward during the next twenty years until his untimely death in 1955. The last years of his life he served the fraternity as its executive secretary, capping a distinguished academic career that had included two college presidencies.
Since the Second World War the fraternity has grown much larger, and it has changed in a number of ways, some quite obvious and others quite subtle Its growth in chapters and membership has been quite spectacular, and its total number of initiates continues to be the higher in the fraternity world. More than a hundred chapter charters have been granted in 45 years. A few chapters have died or have been suspended, but a number of older ones have been revived, including two pre-Civil War chapters (Baylor and Oglethorpe) The number of undergraduate members in each chapter has remained remarkably steady, averaging approximately seventy men each.
Qualitative changes in recent decades have been profound. Alongside their colleges chapters have democratized. Membership today is for more heterogeneous than it was a generation ago as chapters have welcomed increasing numbers of men from religious, ethnic and racial minorities, enriching chapters with an unprecedented cultural diversity. One has but to peruse the roster of the 600 or so delegates at the annual Leadership School to confirm the dimensions of change.
The fraternity enjoyed the “happy days” of the 1950s, endured to survive the campus revolt of the 1960s and early 1970s, and it tried to steer an even coarse in the turbulence that marked the late 1970s and the 198Os. Together with its fellow collegiate Greek-letter societies it wrestles today with problems attendant upon risk management, the war against hazing, alcohol abuse and sexual misconduct rife on our campuses. Never before have the challenges been so great or the opportunities so rich. Accordingly the fraternity has undertaken a thorough program of reform and rejuvenation, seeking to assist its undergraduate members to make a reaffirmation of faith in their best, most wholesome traditions while seeking to adapt creatively to a new and invigorating college climate. Sigma Alpha Epsilon looks to a future full of promise.