History

About the PBK Key.


The present standard key, except for its smaller size and for the lower stem added by the branch at Yale, is substantially the same as the original medal of the Alpha of Virginia.  On the obverse the medal bears the Greek letters ΦΒΚ, the initials of the words Φιλοσοφια Βιου Κυβερνητηζ, “love of wisdom-the helmsman of life."  In the upper left corner three stars symbolize the aims of the Society:  Friendship, Morality, and Literature.  A pointing hand in a lower corner symbolizes Aspiration.  On the reverse the letters SP represents the second motto of the Society, Societas Philosophiae (Sokee-ay-tas philosophee-i).  Below them is engraved the historic date December 5, 1776; and above them the name of the member sometimes is inscribed.

PBK History

Early Days in Virginia

Phi Beta Kappa's first meeting took place on December 5, 1776 in the Apollo Room of the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, Virginia. John Heath, the organization’s first president, aspired to create a serious-minded student society that would offer more than just convivial social opportunities.   

Phi Beta Kappa’s founders met in secret, to give members the freedom to discuss any topic they chose, no matter how controversial.  The regimented curriculum typical of early American colleges allowed little opportunity for this; hence, Phi Beta Kappa’s chosen focus on “literary business,” that is, the holding of discussions and debates. Topics discussed ranged from history (Was Brutus justified in killing Caesar?) to politics (Is religion necessary in government?) to culture (What is the value of theater?).

Notably, the members also debated “the justice of African slavery.”  The specifics of their arguments are unknown.  Phi Beta Kappa’s early development took place at a time when slavery fundamentally shaped American colleges and the nation’s revolutionary experiment. The uncritical participation in a slaveholding society by many early members reflects a serious moral failing.

Building a National Organization

In the winter of 1781, the College of William and Mary shut down when General Charles Cornwallis positioned the British army on the York peninsula for what became the climactic siege of the American Revolutionary War. This closure might have ended the Society, but for its only non-Virginian member. 

Elisha Parmele persuaded fellow members to allow colleges in New England to charter chapters.  A native of Connecticut, Parmele helped create chapters at Yale in 1780 and Harvard in 1781, ensuring the continuation of the Society. Together with Dartmouth, which received its charter in 1786, these New England colleges formed the earliest collaborative network of chapters at the root of the modern PBK organization.

The first collegiate society identified with a Greek letter name, ΦBK introduced the essential characteristics of others 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.

It took 100 years before chapters invited the first African Americans or women to participate in ΦBK. The first women were inducted as members at the University of Vermont in 1875, and at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University in 1876. The first African American men were elected at Yale in 1874 and at the University of Vermont in 1877, and the first African American woman was elected at Middlebury College in 1899.

Today there are 290 chapters at American colleges and universities and nearly 50 active alumni associations located in all regions of the country. The Occidental College chapter of Phi Beta Kappa was installed on May 12th, 1926.   Because Oxy was the fourth chapter founded in California, we’re sometimes referred to as “Delta of California."  The only three California institutions with older Phi Beta Kappa chapters than Oxy’s are the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University, and Pomona College.