Raymond W. Cannon, 99, has a few words of wisdom for today's young black men.
"The first thing I'd tell them is to behave; that's got a great deal to do with it," said the former pharmacist and lawyer. "Then I'd tell them to stick to education and fashion an instrument out of it that they can use to fight the battle of life."
Mr. Cannon spoke yesterday during a break at the 85th anniversary convention of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. The nation's oldest black fraternity, and one of the most influential, its membership has included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
On Sunday, the fraternity dedicated its new national headquarters in Baltimore. It has moved into the Goucher House in the 2300 block of St. Paul Street, an 1892 landmark that was the home of John F. Goucher, the first president of the Woman's College of Baltimore, later renamed Goucher College.
"The fraternity has turned the corner to a new decade of excellence," A. M. "Gus" Witherspoon, administrative assistant to the fraternity's president, said of the move to Baltimore. "I think we just took a quantum leap technologically and functionally as an organization."
The men's social organization, which promotes "Leadership, Scholarship and Service" and has chapters at Morgan State, Towson State, Bowie State, Frostburg State, University of Maryland, University of Maryland Baltimore County, University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Coppin State, has more than 100,000 members worldwide. About 1,200 are attending this year's convention.
For Mr. Cannon, the organization's dedication to education was a main reason he and nine other men formed the fraternity's Mu Chapter at the University of Minnesota 79 years ago. He said the fraternity also gave him a chance to meet other black men.
"I enjoyed the association, the camaraderie," said Mr. Cannon, who later became the fraternity's 12th general president. "I enjoyed the exchange of ideas and views."
Today, the fraternity is taking special interest in helping young black men, said Mr. Witherspoon, a professor at North Carolina State University. "We have always been in the forefront of that," he said. "But it has become a realization to all of us that the African-American male is in trouble as all of the systems that supported him have disintegrated."
Along with giving scholarships and having programs dedicated to education, the fraternity's 800 chapters also are trying to help young men develop leadership and help them understand the devastating effects of teen-age pregnancy.
Next year's convention of the fraternity in Anaheim, Calif., will be dedicated to Mr. Cannon, who will be celebrating his 80th year with Alpha Phi Alpha. "I'm very appreciative of that," said Mr. Cannon. "It shows that all the effort I gave was not in vain."
Mr. Cannon fondly remembers when he and other fraternity members integrated the cafeteria at the University of Kansas, rejecting university offers for a "reserved" table. "When we left, Negroes could eat at any table at the cafeteria, and discrimination in other areas of the school softened up," he said.