Herny Arthur Callis


After leaving Cornell University, Henry Arthur Callis became a practicing physician, Howard University Professor of Medicine and prolific contributor to medical journals. Often regarded as the “philosopher of the founders,” and a moving force in the Fraternity’s development, he was the only one of the “Cornell Seven” to become General President. Prior to moving to Washington, D.C., he was a medical consultant to the Veterans Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama. Upon his death in 1974, at age 87, the Fraternity entered a time without any living Jewels. His papers were donated to Howard’s Moorland-Springarn Research Center.

“The chief significance of Alpha Phi Alpha lies in its purpose to stimulate, develop, and cement an intelligent, trained leadership in the unending fight for freedom, equality and fraternity. Our task is endless.” —Jewel Henry Arthur Callis, May 1946

The life of Jewel Henry Arthur Callis has been well documented in the book Henry Arthur Callis: Life and Legacy by Dr. Charles Harris Wesley. This sketch is written to highlight some of the accomplishments of the man dubbed the “Conscience of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.”

Henry Arthur Callis was born on January 14, 1887, in Rochester, NY, to Rev. Henry Jesse Callis and the former Helen Josephine Sprague, who was a second cousin of abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglas.

Rev. Henry Callis was born in 1858 in Matthew County, Virginia to Jesse and Nettie Smith Callis. His father was the keeper of a grist. As a young boy, he fell in with the Union Soldiers and was carried to Yorktown, where he was taught by the Quakers. Rev. Callis attended Hampton Institute but had to leave before finishing his degree. He later returned to Hampton and completed his work in 1879. He later took several courses at Cornell including political economy, Bible history and psychology. He also pursued theological studies at Rochester. He converted to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and was licensed to preach in 1885, two years before his oldest son was born. He was awarded two honorary degrees from Livingston College and Morris Brown College. A staunch Republican, Mason and Odd Fellow, Rev. Callis also served as the Executive Secretary of the National Race Congress. He was an exceptional orator and a well respected minister. He pastored in Syracuse, New York; Elmira, New York; Elizabeth City, North Carolina; Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois and Washington, D.C.

Jewel Henry Arthur Callis had four siblings: Roy N., Alice L., Leon T., and Harold J. Callis. His mother died of injuries sustained in an elevator accident when he was very young. When Mrs. Callis died, Henry was taken to the home of his grandfather in Binghampton, New York where, with the exception of one year, he would spend most of his childhood and youth. (Rev. Callis later remarried taking Nellie Turner of Geneva, New York as his bride.) Callis’s youth was filled with memorable experience. While at Central High School, Jewel Callis recited Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” speech, which Washington gave at the 1895 Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta. Callis’s peers at Central referred to him as a “second Booker T. Washington,” an honor he called “doubtful.”

“I had heard first hand tales of slavery, the Underground Railroad and the War. I had lived in a former “Station,” I had eaten with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. I had heard the spirituals sung spontaneously after the regular Sunday morning service. I had known well of General Greenleaf of the Louisiana Campaign which in 1863 complemented Grant’s seizure of Vicksburg. I had seen scars of the lash on the backs of women… lynching, disfranchisement and peonage seared my soul. Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Nat Turner and Toussaint L’Overture were my refuge. And a new hope was being born! W.EB. DuBois had called the Niagara Conference.”

At the age of six years, Jewel Callis had chosen Cornell University as the school of his choice when he had the opportunity to visit the campus, with his aunt and younger brother. Edward Brooks informed Callis of a state scholarship and encouraged him to compete for it. He did and won a partial scholarship to Cornell University, fulfilling a dream.

While he was a student, Jewel Callis worked as a waiter at various fraternity houses and tutored students. In the fall of 1905, because of financial difficulties, he was forced to drop out of school. Roscoe Conklin Giles, one of the first initiates, recalled that he returned because of his indefatigable determination, “Setting an example for faint hearted who gave up the fight without a struggle.” He returned in the fall of 1906 and was Secretary of the Social Study Club. He joined Charles Chapman, Kelley, and Tandy on the Committee of Initiation. Callis along with Eugene Jones helped to rationalize and come up with the appropriate Greek letters for the club. Callis would remark years later that he had trouble with the last letter of the name. He often said that he was not a student of Greek and “wanted that changed in the history book.” In a letter to Brother Wesley on October 14, 1959, Jewel Callis writes:

“I had hoped that minor errors of fact would be suggested by living participants. There now is probably no way of unearthing evidence. All of us were commissioned to seek a temporary name. At the March meeting I returned with ‘Alpha Phi Alpha.’ It was adopted informally. These events occurred at 411 East State Street. During the Spring of 1906, we advertised ourselves in Ithaca as AFA. Under that name we gave a dance in town before the closing of school and the first initiation on October 30, was held under the name Alpha Phi Alpha.”

At the first initiation banquet on October 30, 1906, Jewel Callis spoke on the subject “Courage, Brother.” He would serve on the Topic Committee with Tompkins and Murray to further literary ideas as the decision to be come a fraternity had not yet been resolved. On December 4, Jewel Callis, then Secretary of the club, read the letter of resignation of Charles C. Poindexter. (According to oral sources, Poindexter and Callis would remain friends throughout the years. Though not documented, Poindexter was even believed to have been the godfather of one of or both of Callis’ daughters. One of Poindexter’s grandsons Cyril, resides in New York.) Following the passing of the motion, a committee on new fraternal organization was appointed and Jewel Callis, along with Jewel Charles Henry Chapman, initiates James Morton, Eugene Kinckle Jones and Jewel Nathaniel Allison Murray served on this committee.

In the spring of 1907, Jewel Callis ran for President of Alpha chapter against Eugene Kinckle Jones, but lost. At the second initiation banquet “Jewel’ Callis was toastmaster. When discussion ensued on the pin Jewel Callis amended the motion that the pin be worn on the waistcoat on the heart side of the body. He then followed up with another motion that the pin be worn on the left side of the vest or shirt. It was seconded and passed.

Early on with this small chapter, there were of course some signs of disunity and Jewel Callis felt the need to speak out on the “lack of unity” among the fellows. The brothers agreed to his views and imposed a fine of $0.25 upon any brothers who displayed or showed a disunited spirit.

The first two years were full of committee work and Callis once again found himself on the Shingle Committee, the Constitution Committee and Incorporation Committee of which he would serve on the Board of Trustees. He had to rely on his memory with Eugene Kinckle Jones to rewrite the ritual after the original one could not be found.

In 1908, he was elected President of Alpha Chapter. At the first general convention on Howard’s campus, Jewel Callis permitted Brother George Lyle, president of Beta Chapter to open up the first session. Callis opened up the second day and carried out his duties for the rest of the convention. In addition, he was elected Vice President of the General Organization for the year 1909.

As a part of his responsibility, Jewel Callis was delegated to organize Epsilon Chapter at the University of Michigan on April 10, 1909. He also attended the Third Annual Convention in 1910 in Philadelphia as an Alpha Chapter alumnus.

Following his graduation from Cornell, he taught in Wilmington, Delaware. He attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and Rush College, which later merged, with the University of Chicago Medical School where he studied pathology. While a member of Theta Chapter, Jewel Callis was elected the seventh General President of the Fraternity at the December 1914 General Convention in Chicago, Illinois.

Jewel Callis married Myra Colson, a 1915 graduate of Fisk University, who did her graduate study at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1928, she received an M.A. degree from the University of Chicago. A former chemistry and physics teacher, she worked with the Department of Records and Research at Tuskegee Institute and was Supervisor of the District of Columbia Employment Services. She published Negro Home Workers in Chicago; was a member of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History; and a sister of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. She and Jewel Callis were the parents of two daughters: Jane Callis Evans and Helen Callis Itoh of New York.

Jewel Callis taught medicine at Howard University before opening a private practice in Washington, D.C. He enjoyed a cordial relationship with Mu Lambda Chapter and the fellowship of such luminaries as Rayford Logan, Belford Lawson and others who were members of the chapter. His other memberships were numerous and included the National Urban and the National Medical Association. Jewel Callis also held life memberships in the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and the NAACP.

Throughout the 1920’s, Jewel Callis was very busy with his medical career. His preoccupation with his work and family may have prevented him from responding to the numerous requests from Brother Dr. Charles H. Wesley while he was working on the history of the fraternity. He was slow to respond. Several letters asking for his cooperation in supplying information went unanswered. Finally responding, Jewel Callis told him that in 1922, a flash flood in Chicago destroyed a trunk full of letters, papers, and clippings dating back to 1907, “much of the material relating to Alpha,” he said. Over the years, Brother Wesley would confer with Jewel Callis regarding the content of the book. In one instance, he demanded that a point be changed. Brother Wesley, in a letter to Jewel Callis, reminded him that “History is changed or rewritten only when there is introduction of new evidence and not merely by reference to one’s memory.”

Jewel Callis fired back. In a speech, he opened with the following statement: “Contrary to the published history…” Upon hearing that Callis had openly challenged his work, Wesley felt that implications were raised by questioning the work of history. Throughout the years. Wesley and Jewel Callis would exchange many letters regarding facts in the history book. Wesley always graciously and politely, with the respect due to a founder, would always try to satisfy Jewel Callis, by giving his references full consideration.

It goes without saying that Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. was dearest to his heart. In 1946, while visiting Cornell and attending his fortieth class reunion, Jewel Callis was the guest of Alpha Chapter. He thought of an idea in which he addressed in a letter to General President Belford Lawson and proposed the idea of building an Alpha Shrine at Cornell University. In the letter he cited:

“The very catholicity of Cornell nurtured Alpha Phi Alpha. The fraternity might well establish a Memorial house upon the campus of Cornell, dedicated to Universal Brotherhood. For this purpose, this project should be so administered that any male student at the university might be a resident. Such a monument to the beginning of the Greek letter fraternities and sororities among us would center attention upon problems we continue to face and should stimulate an increase in the number of capable students who attend the university.”

General President Lawson reprinted the letter in the October 1946 edition of The Sphinx and asked brothers to respond to Brother Howard Long, Chairman of the Program Committee or Brother William Benson, Chairman of the Housing Committee with their ideas.

Jewel Callis’s involvement with the fraternity was constant. He made it his business not to miss a General Convention unless he was simply unable to attend. By 1955, the Fraternity began to make plans for the 50th anniversary. Jewel Callis, however seemed displeased at some of the plans forthcoming. He said to Brother Wesley in a letter on March 27, 1955:

“I am not yet out of my depression completely. The chief interest appears to be publicity in red capitals. I fear that we have exchanged the leadership of scholarship for that of big business. My tragedy is that I no longer possess the physical strength, nor the emotional reserve to lead the fight for first principles.”

In that same letter, Jewel Callis commented:

At Miami I gave you some idea of my vision for the Cornell luncheon program. When I heard in D.C. about the Thursday afternoon session, I became and remain greatly disturbed. I fear mediocrity is seizing Alpha again as it did in the 1920’s. Back slapping at the Cornell luncheon for the first 50 years is out of order. What we need now is vision born of wisdom, for the next half century. Unencumbered citizenship requires unlimited responsibility. In 1905, we had the Niagara Manifesto almost fulfilled in 1955. We require a new sight for 2006.”

In August 1956, Alpha celebrated the fiftieth anniversary in Buffalo, New York. It would be the most endearing to Jewel Callis. He and Jewels George Biddle Kelley and Nathaniel Allison Murray would be the only three founders present at the convention. As plans were being made, Callis wrote another letter to Brother Wesley commenting that he wanted Brother Dr. W.E.B. DuBois to be the speaker at the luncheon. As it turned out, Jewels Callis, Kelley and Murray gave the addresses.

Jewel Callis remarked in his message:

“Our Fiftieth Anniversary celebration loses its significance unless, like Janus, we look both backward and forward. To cover a half century in a few minutes requires the insight of a genius. In 1906, three thousand lynchings had occurred in a quarter-century. Disfranchisement was law in one third of the states. Separate but unequal had become an entrenched practice throughout the nation. The Niagara Manifesto, demanding full rights under the constitution for all Americans, was heresy…What are the dangers ahead in the next half century? They are not new. Success and prosperity breed selfishness and indifference. These vices undermine the fire society that spawns them. Eternal vigilance remains still the price of liberty. Freedom for one’s self cannot be divorced from responsibility for one’s fellow. Nor is freedom divisible. There is not one freedom for thought, another for speaking, another for reading, another for association and yet another for travel. As citizens, our obligation is to guard, jealously, complete freedom for all Americans. Only this vigilance will keep America strong and keep us

It was obvious that Jewel Callis had grown weary of the direction the fraternity was headed. In an article in The Sphinx, he commented:

” We are necessary for the advancement of human rights in this decade. Indeed, I am not certain we are prepared for the responsibilities of this period. Our interests have become too narrow. Dances and cocktail parties replace discussion of current problems and active participation in community and regional affairs.”

Jewel Callis was very uncomfortable with the term “Jewel.” On December 23, 1964, in a letter to C. Anderson Davis, Editor of The Sphinx, Callis wrote “Please do not use ‘Jewel’ in your notice.” Jewel Callis preferred to be called “Founder.” He felt that the word “Founder” was much more descriptive and symbolic. He was also “weary” and afraid of the idea of “reorganization” coming so often in the history of the Fraternity. He often complained about the tampering of the constitution, the ritual, and the reorganization of the Fraternity. Founder Callis wanted to see more emphasis put on the undergraduates and less on organizational machinery.

Jewel Callis died on November 12, 1974 in Washington, D.C., after an extended illness. His body was cremated. A memorial service was held on Saturday, December 4, at Howard University with remarks coming from Past General Presidents Rayford Logan and Belford V. Lawson and then current General President Walter Washington.

“Since its founding in 1906, Alpha Phi Alpha has recognized its responsibilities and has nurtured a leadership to aid the Negro in is struggle toward unfettered American citizenship. Education for intelligent participation in American life has been the tocsin.” —Jewel Henry Arthur Callis

“We live in a period of greater social change than ever before has encompassed one generation. Every Brother should take pride, and feel a corresponding responsibility, in the historic fact that Alpha Phi Alpha is the first Greek letter college fraternity founded with social purpose. Young Brothers seldom fail to catch the vision; let the Brothers who, like the Founders, have reached fifty, keep the vision.”