Phi Beta Kappa is the oldest undergraduate honors organization in the United States. The society has pursued its mission of fostering and recognizing excellence in the liberal arts and sciences since 1776.
The Gamma of North Carolina Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa was established at Davidson College in 1923. It grew out of the Mimir Society, a local society established in 1915 for the recognition of attainment in scholarship.
Charter members were: President W. J. Martin, a Phi Beta Kappa of the University of Virginia; Prof. Ray W. Pettingill, a Phi Beta Kappa of Bowdoin College; Prof. W. L. Porter, a Phi Beta Kappa of Yale University; Prof. E. F. Shewmake, a Phi Beta Kappa of the College of William and Mary; and Prof. W. W. Wood, a Phi Beta Kappa of the University of Virginia. Ten foundation members, 10 alumni members, and five members-in-course were initiated on March 1, 1923. The first member-in-course to sign the roster of members was Robert F. Davidson. The first officers of the chapter were Dr. Joseph M. McConnell, president; Dr. E. F. Shewmake, vice-president; and Prof. W. W. Wood, secretary-treasurer.
On April 26, 1973 the chapter celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding. Among those present for the occasion were Carl Billman, secretary of the united chapters of Phi Beta Kappa, and Robert F. Davidson, the first member in course initiated by the Gamma Chapter. Both of these gentlemen received honorary degrees from the college at the Spring Convocation the next day.
In 1974 the chapter marked the beginning of its second half century by initiating into its membership two women, Virginia Howell Andrews and Patricia Elise Morgan. Initiation ceremonies feature the use of a large wooden replica of the Phi Beta Kappa key that was created by Prof. John Kelton.
At the 1976 Triennial Council of the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa, Prof. Malcolm Lester, secretary of the Davidson Chapter, was elected to the senate, the executive body of the United Chapters. He held that position until 1982.
The chapter celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1998, at which ceremony Prof. Lester provided reminiscences about its long history. Also on that occasion Prof. Ed Palmer gave to the chapter a celebratory banner that is regularly displayed at the annual banquet.
Since its founding in 1923, more than 2,500 students have become members of the Gamma of North Carolina Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.
More than 70 Davidson faculty and staff, including emeriti, are members of the Gamma of North Carolina Chapter. Among many illustrious Davidson alumni who have been elected to Phi Beta Kappa are:
- Joel Conarroe ’56, President Emeritus, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, former president, PEN American Center
- William Eskridge ’73, John A. Garver Professor of Jurisprudence, Yale Law School
- Elizabeth Kiss ’83, Rhodes Scholar, President, Agnes Scott College
- John Kuykendall ’59, President Emeritus, Davidson College
- Dean Rusk ’31, U.S. Secretary of State, Kennedy and Johnson Administrations
- John Spratt ’64, U.S. House of Representatives, S.C.