On December 5, 1776, a group of five young men, students of the College of William and Mary in Virginia, meeting in the Apollo Room of the Raleigh Tavern, Williamsburg, formed the Phi Beta Kappa Society, which they dedicated to high purposes with eighteenth-century eloquence. The first college society to bear a Greek-letter name, ΦBK 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.
The fortunate establishment of New England branches at Yale in 1780 and Harvard in 1781 ensured the perpetuation and propagation of the Society when the parent chapter became inactive due to the American Revolutionary War. During the following half-century, four more chapters were founded: at Dartmouth in 1787, Union in 1817, Bowdoin in 1825, and Brown in 1830. Then after a pause of fifteen years, a slightly more rapid expansion began in 1845. At the end of the next half-century of growth, twenty-five chapters had been founded. The need of a closer unity and greater uniformity of practices led, in 1883, to the organization of the national body, the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa, headquartered in Washington, DC. At about the same time, the first women and African Americans were invited to join ΦBK. The first chapters to induct women were at the University of Vermont, in 1875, and at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, in 1876. The first African Americans were elected at Yale, in 1874, and at the University of Vermont, in 1877.
Phi Beta Kappa has evolved to become the nation’s leading advocate for the liberal arts and sciences at the undergraduate level and now elects over 15,000 new members a year from 290 chapters across the United States.
The St. Mary’s College of Maryland chapter of the society celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2017. Its charter was approved September 27, 1997. The first meeting was held in November 1997 to discuss amendments to the model constitution and bylaws and then, on April 22, 1998, we held our installation ceremony followed by our first initiation ceremony in the State House of Historic St. Mary’s City.