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Fraternity puts its founder on map

Although Vertner Woodson Tandy was born in Lexington in 1885, he made his mark in New York, where he became the first registered black architect in the state.

Local members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., the black fraternity Tandy helped establish in 1906, want people in Lexington to remember Tandy.

The fraternity will unveil a Kentucky historical highway marker Saturday in front of his boyhood home at 642 West Main Street.

There were some delays in reaching this day.

"We wanted to get a historical marker during our centennial in 2006," said Lee A. Jackson, chairman of the education foundation for the local branch of Alphas. But paperwork was not accepted in time for that to happen. Only 30 marker applicants are approved each year, and there sometimes is a backlog.

Approval for the marker came last year, but the group decided to wait to celebrate during this year's the Roots & Heritage Festival festivities, Jackson said.

Tandy, whose father, Henry Tandy, was a builder in Lexington, attended Chandler School before heading to Tuskegee Institute to study architecture under Booker T. Washington.

After a year, however, he headed for Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., in 1905. There he met six other men and later formed the Alphas, the oldest black fraternity in the United States.

He graduated in 1908 with a degree in architecture. In 1917 he was the first African-American to pass the military commissioning exam and became an officer in the New York National Guard. He rose in rank from l ieutenant to major, commanding a segregated unit of the 15th Infantry during World War I.

During his architectural career, he partnered with George Washington Foster and designed several homes and buildings in New York City's Harlem and in Mount Vernon.

Tandy designed St. Philip's Episcopal Church in New York City, then considered the richest black congregation in the country. He also designed Villa Lewaro, a mansion for Madam C.J. Walker, the first African-American female millionaire.

In Kentucky, Tandy designed Berea Hall, a dormitory on the Lincoln Institute campus in Simpsonville.

In Lexington, he designed Webster Hall, 548 Georgetown Street, as living quarters for teachers at the Chandler school, which operated just behind that building. Both buildings still stand, one a church, the other a private residence.

Tandy and six of his friends at Cornell formed the fraternity as a means of uniting against the racially charged environment they had entered. Six African-American student who entered Cornell in 1904-05 did not return for a second year. Fearing that might happen to them, the men formed a fraternity to help get them through.

It worked.

The marker will sit in front of the house Tandy's grandparents bought in 1853. Tandy's parents moved in after his grandfather died. It is now the office of the Kentucky chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

Vertner Tandy's father and partner Albert Byrd owned a brick masonry and building company that reportedly made Henry Tandy the richest black man in Kentucky.

Tandy's former home will be open for tours from 9 to 10 a.m Saturday. The historical marker will be dedicated at 10 a.m. and a reception will follow at Sovereign Grace Chapel of Main Street Baptist Church.