It's 2 a.m. and an underground pledge meeting for the Omega Theta chapter of Omega Psi Phi is underway at a home in Houston's Third Ward. Two University of Houston students are being asked about poetry, the Greek alphabet and the history of the African-American fraternity that can boast basketball legend Michael Jordan, civil-rights activist Jesse Jackson Sr. and comedian Bill Cosby as alumni.
The two pledges blow the quiz. A fraternity member rewards them with lashes across the torso, buttocks and calves with a two-by-six-inch wooden board wrapped in duct tape, an aluminum baseball bat and a TV antenna. One pledge, Jermel Kyle, struggles to remain conscious as he's repeatedly punched in the stomach. Next to him is Lee West III, a 21-year-old University of Houston junior who tries hard not to pass out.
According to West III, who's now 23 and a graduate student at the University of Texas at Dallas, this pummeling in February 2009 was the fourth violent hazing incident that occurred at private residences of Omega Psi Phi fraternity members and alumni. During the first meeting, West III says that a broomstick snapped in two across the backside of his fellow pledge.
Following the fourth and final episode, Byron Bass, West III's roommate at the time, says that Lee had to call him at 4 a.m. for help getting up the stairs of their apartment. "At 6 a.m., I went back into his room and he looked terrible," remembers Bass. "He appeared to be in shock and distraught. Later that day, I had to help him up with his trousers. He was practically crawling around the apartment."
In April 2010, Lee West III, his father, Lee West Jr., and West III's mother, Kathleen Truss (who has since died), sued the four alleged perpetrators, the off-campus Omega Theta chapter and the national fraternity, which is headquartered in Decatur, Georgia. The organization, which will turn 100 years old in November, has more than 700 chapters (including an offshoot at Texas Southern University) in nine countries.
In the past two decades, Omega Psi Phi has been hampered by multiple chapter suspensions, lawsuits and settlements. A high-profile case in 1997 awarded $375,000 to former University of Maryland student Joe Snell after he testified that Omega Psi Phi members had put a heater in front of his face in order to darken his skin because he wasn't "black enough."
Now, West III and his father, a 30-plus-year member of Omega Psi Phi, are seeking justice. Dad says that he didn't file criminal charges because he trusted that he and his fraternity brothers could settle the matter outside of the courts. Instead, West Jr. explains that he was "accused of harming the fraternity through some pre-planned actions." The matter was never investigated by law enforcement.
Terrell Jewett (whom fraternity members deemed too weak to invite back for a fourth meeting) and Kyle are the other two pledges who were present during the alleged late-night beatings. They each told Omega Psi Phi investigators that they were not hazed; Ayesha Mutope-Johnson, who is representing the West family, says she thinks that Jewett and Kyle were intimidated. Jewett and Kyle could not be tracked down for this story.
In a response submitted to the court in the civil suit, the Omega Psi Phi members accused by the Wests — Chike Mordi, Michael Jackson II, Victor Oyeniyi and Kenneth Stinson — denied "each and every allegation." The fraternity, which also denied any hazing took place, has said that any injury to West III, Jewett and Kyle would have been caused "by the negligence of a third party over whom Omega had no supervision or control." (Attempts at reaching the defendants and the fraternity were unsuccessful.)
As West Jr. waits for his family's day in court, he says that many of his old fraternity brothers have either given him a hard time or ignored him. He has struggled between looking after the fraternity that he loves and defending his son.
Lee West Jr., 52, sits on a living room couch inside his spacious home in a tidy subdivision of Grand Prairie. A Bible, a copy of Esquire and magazines about airplanes and flying are organized into various piles on the light-wood coffee table.
West Jr., a lanky and laid-back aerospace engineering tool designer, spends much of his time at home creating blueprints as a successful contract employee. Today, West Jr., who pledged Louisiana State University's Theta Kappa chapter of Omega Psi Phi in 1979, attributes his prosperous life to the lessons he learned as a member of the fraternity.
When Omega Psi Phi was founded at Howard University in Washington D.C. in 1911, the fraternal organization — a member of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, a coalition of nine African-American fraternities and sororities — became the first of its kind at a historically black college. Today, members of the tradition-deep fraternity (nicknamed "Q Dogs," "Ques" and "Sons of Blood and Thunder") often sport the group's royal purple and old gold colors as well as an omega Greek letter that's branded onto their skin.