Richmond College in the early 20th Century was attended by less than 300 students. Almost half this number belonged to five fraternities previously chartered on the campus. The little Baptist college, founded in 1830, became home to Sigma Phi Epsilon.
Sigma Phi Epsilon was founded because 12 young collegians wanted a campus fellowship based on Judeo/Christian ideals that neither the college community nor the fraternity system at that time could offer. The desire for brotherhood was in the young men's souls. Sigma Phi Epsilon was needed.
Carter Ashton Jenkens, the 18-year-old son of a minister, had been a student at Rutgers University, New Jersey, where he joined Chi Phi Fraternity. When he transferred to Richmond College in the Fall of 1900, he sought companions to take the place of the Chi Phi brothers he had left behind. He found five men who had already been drawn into a bond of friendship and urged them to join him in applying for a charter of Chi Phi at Richmond College. The request for a charter was forwarded to Chi Phi only to meet with refusal. Chi Phi felt that Richmond College was too small for the establishment of a Chi Phi chapter.
Wanting to maintain their fellowship, Carter Ashton Jenkens, Benjamin Gaw, William Carter, William Wallace, Thomas Wright, and William Phillips decided to form their own local fraternity.
The six original members found six others also searching for a campus fellowship neither the college campus nor the existing fraternity system could offer. The six new members were Lucian Cox, Richard Owens, Edgar Allen, Robert McFarland, Franklin Kerfoot, and Thomas McCaul.
The 12 met in October, 1901, in Gaw and Wallace's room on the third floor of Ryland Hall. They discussed the organization of a fraternity they would call “Sigma Phi,” later to be known as “Sigma Phi Epsilon.” The exact date of this meeting is not known. However, the meeting was probably held before the middle of the month, because the 12 Founders are named as members on November 1, 1901, in the first printed roster of the Fraternity. Jenkens is listed as the first member.
In November or December, 1901, an unheated, unfurnished single room in the tower of Ryland Hall was assigned to the new fraternity by the college. Before January 1, 1902, SigEps had lined all open wall space with wide board benches. The wall was papered — purple and red. A rostrum, shaped like a horseshoe, was built in a corner. A small oil stove would not heat the room, so secret meetings continued to be held in SigEp dormitory rooms until March, 1902.
After recruiting many students, only one new man joined in the fall, and one more in the spring. The small college enrollment in the session of 1902-1903 and increasing competition for new members from the chapters of five national fraternities on the campus made the members of Sigma Phi Epsilon realize the crucial position of their local fraternity.
After discussing the situation at several meetings, a momentous decision was reached. Sigma Phi Epsilon must either convert the local fraternity into a national one or watch the local fraternity die. The secretary was instructed to request Founder Lucian B. Cox, an attorney in Norfolk, Virginia, to write an application for a state charter for Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity and return it to him at the earliest possible moment.
This charter was signed by all eight SigEps enrolled at Richmond College on October 18, filed in the Circuit Court of Richmond City on October 20, and recorded by the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia on October 22, 1902. (The original charter is on display at Sigma Phi Epsilon Headquarters.) Under that state charter, Virginia Alpha established chapters at five other colleges that session.
Sigma Phi Epsilon ended its fifth year of operation with 14 chapters in nine states. Nineteen chapters had been chartered, despite the little money the group had to work with. But the will of the members to develop and expand their Fraternity prevailed, and chapters spread west to Colorado, north to Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and New York, and south to North and South Carolina.
The next five years brought 17 new chapters and representation in a total of 18 states. This momentum continued with the appointment of the first Grand Secretary of Sigma Phi Epsilon. Among the new chapters of Sigma Phi Epsilon chartered in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Georgia, Kansas, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Vermont, and the District of Columbia. In addition to these chapters was our very own Alabama Alpha at Auburn University.
The founders of Alabama Alpha were John Blake, Jeptha H. Blake, James W. Moore, Tyson McDonald, Albert H. Van Duzer, Rufus Peerson, Peyton B Burkhalter, and G. Shields Bishop. They laid the foundation of what would eventually become the great chapter of Sig Ep we are today.
The national fraternity also grew strong. It became a fraternity of many firsts, including it being the first fraternity to charter a chapter in all 50 states and the first national fraternity to establish a housing trust for all chapters and create a National Housing Corporation.
Today, the Fraternity has grown to more than 255,000 lifetime members, including 14,000 undergraduates on 260 campuses in the United States. Sigma Phi Epsilon is currently the largest fraternity in the nation with many famous alumni in all ocupations. Some of Sigma Phi Epsilon's famous alumni include the late Dave Thomas, Founder and CEO of Wendy's, and actor John Goodman.