What Makes an ‘Omega Man’? Fraternity’s UVA Alumni Reflect

November 17, 2023 By Alice Berry, aberry@virginia.edu Alice Berry, aberry@virginia.edu

The men of Omega Psi Phi at the University of Virginia have been giving back to the community for 50 years.

Even during their recent 50th anniversary celebration, the more than 100 men didn’t just gather to celebrate their decades on Grounds; they found a way to make the Charlottesville area a little better. They cleaned a stretch of West Main Street close to the University.

School of Law student Charles Chambliss founded the Lambda Zeta chapter of Omega Psi Phi at UVA in September 1973, not long after the University began admitting Black students. In 1950, Gregory Swanson became the first Black student to be admitted to UVA when he entered the Law School, where he completed a one-year program. Walter Ridley became UVA’s first Black graduate in 1953. In 1973, Donald W. Jones was appointed former University president Frank Hereford’s adviser on “minority affairs” – a role designed to help UVA recruit and retain Black students.

Omega Psi Phi was the first Black Greek letter organization on Grounds.

“This was the beginning of something new that I thought was desperately needed,” George Martin, a 1975 graduate who joined Omega Psi Phi as part of the charter “line,” or pledge class, said.

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Group photo of 5 memebers of Omega Psi Phi at UVA in the 1970s

The fraternity was a refuge for Black students, who lacked outlets at UVA during the 1970s. (Contributed photo)

Even though no man in his family was an Omega – most were members of other fraternities – Martin says he was drawn to the organization.

“They tried to talk me out of it, but I knew it was the right thing to do,” Martin said.

Charles Bowers knew, too, though it took him a little longer to join. He joined the year after Martin, whom he called a “big brother,” after witnessing firsthand the group’s commitment to service.

The University had very few Black students – Martin estimated that there were just under 100 in his class – and Omega Psi Phi served as a kind of refuge.

“Back in the early ’70s, there weren’t a lot of outlets for Black students on Grounds, socially,” Bowers said.

Bowers worked as a photographer in the University’s graphics department and documented the events Omega Psi Phi and other student groups organized. He even participated in some of Lambda Zeta’s service projects, like roofing a house. After graduating in 1976, Bowers worked in telecommunications, quickly rising the ranks at Verizon companies.

Two members of the UVA chapter of Omega Psi Phi performing a step show

A step show, like the one pictured above, inspired Stafford Brown to join Omega Psi Phi. (Contributed photo)

“Service is ingrained in us,” Bowers said.

Stafford Brown, now a radiologist, knew he wanted to join Omega Psi Phi after watching a step show in his home state of Connecticut. A first-generation college student, he forfeited a full scholarship at the University of Connecticut to come to UVA.

“There was a mystique about the Lambda Zeta chapter brothers at that time. They were really high achievers, so it was easy for me to gravitate to excellence,” Brown said.

Members of the Lambda Zeta chapter have gone on to make history. The late Leroy Hassell became the first Black chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court. Martin was the first Black rector of UVA’s Board of Visitors. Other Lambda Zeta members have become leaders in law, business and medicine.

UVA’s current vice rector, Carlos Brown, was inspired to join his hometown chapter of Omega Psi Phi after meeting some of the men of Lambda Zeta, including Martin and Hassell. Martin hired him at the law firm McGuire Woods, first as a summer associate, then as an associate.

“All of a sudden, the dots are connecting,” Carlos Brown said. “These are men who impact lives, right? And I want to be a man that ultimately impacts lives in a way that’s positive and affirming.”

Current members and alumni of the UVA chapter of Omega Psi Phi  at the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers
The men of the Lambda Zeta chapter have made history. One, Leroy Hassell, became the first Black chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court. (Contributed photo)

Carlos Brown grew up with a single mother. In Martin, Hassell and others, he found a model for manhood.

Being an Omega man is a lifestyle, the brothers said. That was true for Bowers. 

“Folks at my church would tell my father that they thought I would become an Omega,” Bowers said. He said the most influential men in his life are Omegas.

For Stafford Brown, being an Omega runs in the family. Both of his sons joined the Lambda Zeta chapter.

Though the men are now alumni, they remain  active, talking with their fraternity brothers often. They are brothers of Omega Psi Phi in action, not just name. Omega Psi Phi’s cardinal principles of manhood, scholarship, perseverance and uplift, as the foundations for a life of service have stuck with them.

“It has shaped the way I look at the world,” Bowers said.

Media Contact

Alice Berry

University News Associate Office of University Communications