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Civil rights leaders among those remembered during Black fraternity centennial 

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Civil rights leaders among those remembered during Black fraternity centennial 

Sep 15, 2023 | 9:56 am ET
By Ken Coleman
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Civil rights leaders among those remembered during Black fraternity centennial 
Description
Michigan Gov. G. Mennen Williams (center) is presented with the NAACP Life Membership plaque by Wendell Cox (left) and Dr. DeWitt Burton (right) during the 1960 Detroit NAACP Fight for Freedom Dinner. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

The Detroit chapter of a leading Black fraternity on Saturday will host its centennial celebration, with two of its founding members boasting strong ties to the American civil rights movement.

Omega Psi Phi fraternity’s Detroit alumni chapter, Nu Omega, was founded at a time when African Americans, largely from southern states, were moving to the Motor City seeking better economic conditions. Detroit’s African-American population skyrocketed from about 5,700 people in 1910 to 120,000 in 1930.

Its centennial celebration takes place at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Motor City Casino Hotel in Detroit.

“Omega Psi Phi Fraternity strives to improve the lives of children, families, and communities worldwide,” according to its website.

Civil rights leaders among those remembered during Black fraternity centennial 
Francis Dent | Omega Psi Phi photo

One of chapter founders was Francis Dent, a lawyer, who helped defend the Orsel McGhee family from race discrimination during the 1940s. As an African American family, the McGhee had been denied the right to live in a Detroit westside house that they purchased during the 1940s.

On May 3, 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a set of decisions that allowed the McGhee’s to remain in their home after a white neighborhood association moved to force them out.

The property deed connected to Orsel and Minnie McGhee’s home on 4626 Seebaldt Street, which they purchased in 1944, stated that Black people were not permitted to occupy the 1,300-foot, four-square-style dwelling: “This property shall not be used or occupied by any person or persons except those of the Caucasian race.” Such language was commonly referred to as restrictive covenants.

“Brother Francis Dent was an outstanding jurist who worked diligently for the African-American citizens of the city of Detroit,” said Larry Ato Polk, a lawyer who leads the Nu Omega chapter. “He was most renowned for his efforts to remove racial covenants that would not allow Black people to live in certain areas within the city of Detroit. Brother Dent’s leadership and tenacity, coupled with his brilliant, legal mind, and his love, for his people will always be remembered and emulated as we continue to move our great fraternity forward.“

Another founding member, DeWitt Burton, was a leading physician in Detroit and also holds the distinction of being Michigan’s first African American elected to statewide political office. Burton was elected to the Wayne State University board of governors in 1959. He founded Burton Mercy Hospital at 271 Eliot Street in Detroit’s Brush Park community and was an active member of the Detroit branch NAACP, an organization that has fought for voting rights for African Americans.

“As a Black business owner, he fearlessly advocated for the socio-economic liberation, freedom, and equality of the Black community,” said Kenneth Harris, a fraternity member, one of Burton’s nephews and The National Business League president and CEO. 

Other Nu Omega founding members were Odie Davis, Charles Washington, Davis Smith, and Livingston Jeffries.