Charles W. Burkett and John F. Cunningham founded the Fraternity of Alpha Zeta on November 4, 1897, at The Ohio State University.
Brothers Burkett and Cunningham were roommates while studying in the College of Agriculture at Ohio State. They realized the need for fellowship among students dedicated to the cause of agriculture.
At the time, agricultural education was of low standing at the University. Similarly, there was little regard for the few students enrolled in agriculture courses. Burkett and Cunningham wanted an organized way to promote agriculture openly and cooperatively and to gain respect for agriculture students.
It was three years between the first planning and the actual organization of the Fraternity. In June 1897, Brother Burkett and Brother Cunningham took the following oath, "The Fraternity of Alpha Zeta begins its work. Its spirit will be: To give, not to receive; to serve, not ourselves only, but the agricultural body, the whole cause of higher education, and in every way possible all people engaged in the profession of agriculture. May the Fraternity live forever."
Ten other men were included in the plans and ideas. These twelve men became the charter members of the first, and therefore the oldest, agricultural fraternity in America. The members that made up the group of twelve were:
Charles W. Burkett
John F. Cunningham
Arthur G. Abbott
Vernon H. Davis
Donnelley H. Duncan
Arthur G. McCall
Carl J. Miller
Charles B. Stewart
Leonard C Warden
In Brother Burkett's own words, "Alpha Zeta was to be a professional fraternity - to foster leadership in the college of agriculture, to promote scholarship, to chose manly, personable young men of high character and integrity and unite them in to an elite body with a fraternity bond encircling them. It was not a body to show favor but to serve; it was not a body to give honor to anyone but one where its members could be of help to others. In other words, it was not intended as an honorary fraternity but a fraternity to help all, in its reach, in the cause of agriculture."
Burkett and Cunningham were not only dedicated, devoted, and determined men, proud of their places in agriculture, they were also men of vision who took an active role in the fraternity's development.
Alpha Zeta grew quickly. The founding principles appealed to university students on the forefront of agriculture. Chapters sprung up across the nation at colleges and universities with programs in agriculture.
However, the Fraternity was not without controversy. Alpha Zeta remained an all white male organization for its first 55 years of its existence. A proposal was made that the word ‘white' be stricken from the constitution at the 1940 Conclave, but it would be another 12 years before this amendment was passed. The issue of deleting the word ‘white' was brought up at every conclave form 1940 to 1952.
Finally, a committee of Alpha Zeta alumni was appointed to investigate and report on segregation in the fraternity. The committee found sentiment strongly in favor of amending the constitution to eliminate any restriction based on color. The 1950 Conclave approved the report and agreed to the amendment, "Any male student..."
Thus, the amendment was completed at the 1952 conclave.
The next membership issue to face the Fraternity was the admission of women. The issue was first presented at the 1952 Conclave, but the proposal to admit women failed with a tie vote of 24 to 24. At the time, Alpha Zeta awarded women in agriculture recognition certificates for their activities, scholarship or contributions to the college. In 1972, the Conclave voted to strike the word male from the constitution, allowing chapters to initiate women.
Since then the Fraternity has continued its mission to promote agriculture and recognize scholarship, leadership and character. The next major event for Alpha Zeta occurred in 1994. After more than 20 years headquartered in Lafayette, Ind., management of the Fraternity moved to St. Louis, Mo. The Fraternity of Alpha Zeta and the Alpha Zeta Foundation, Inc. became the first client of Drake & Company, an association management company owned and operated by Townshend alumnus Steve Drake. In 2013, the Fraternity and Foundation became clients of AMR Management Services in Lexington, Kentucky.
Today more than 125,000 men and women have been initiated into the 74 chapters of the Fraternity of Alpha Zeta. Fraternity students and alumni work in all types of agriculture-related careers ranging from production farming to politics and agronomy to veterinary medicine.
Through the inspiration, guidance and founding principles constructed by Charles W. Burkett and John F. Cunningham, the Fraternity has become a powerful professional organization striving to further agriculture by promoting scholarship, molding young leaders of character and encouraging fellowship among like-minded students and alumni.