Henry Arthur Callis was one of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity’s Seven Jewels or founders. He was one of five children born on January 14, 1887, in Rochester, New York, to Rev. Henry Callis and Helen Josephine (Sprague) Callis.
Henry Arthur Callis, age 3, spent his formative years in Binghampton, New York, with his maternal grandparents after his mother was murdered in an elevator accident. Callis graduated from high school in 1905 and moved to upstate New York to attend Cornell University, which he had visited as a child. He received a partial scholarship and worked on campus as a tutor and waiter for white fraternity houses. He was forced to drop out the following year due to financial difficulties, but he did not give up; he saved his money and reentered in the fall of 1906.
During that semester, a group of African American students in Callis’ literary club decided to organize a fraternal organization. On December 4, 1906, seven members of the society, including Callis, converted it into a fraternal organization called Alpha Phi Alpha. Callis was responsible for the fraternity’s name and the first ritual ceremony. He is the fraternity’s only Jewel (founding member) to serve as general president (6th general president) after the organization was fully established in 1915-1916.
Callis accepted a post at Howard High School in Wilmington, Delaware, after graduating from Cornell in 1909. Howard High School was created in 1867 to educate African Americans. There he taught history and German and met his first wife, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, an early twentieth-century novelist, poet, and civil rights activist. He was admitted to the University of Pennsylvania Medical School after a one-year stint at the school, where he studied from 1910 to 1913.
To deepen his understanding of biological sciences, he enrolled in the graduate science program at the University of Chicago in 1913. He married commercial artist Pauline (Parker) Callis in 1914. Callis graduated the following year and began working as a chemist at Armour & Co.’s chemical laboratories. He worked for Armour & Co. until 1919, when he became a bacteriologist at Chicago’s Contagious Disease Hospital and was accepted to Rush Medical College, where he graduated in 1921.
Dr. Henry Arthur Callis had a variety of prominent jobs after graduating from medical school. Two of the most notable positions were pathologist and head of laboratory services at the United States Veterans Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama, and associate professor of medicine and attending physician in charge of medical services at Howard University’s Freedmen’s Hospital. He remained active in the community and fraternity until his death on November 12, 1974, at the age of 87.