Too little systematic research has been done on the emergence, proliferation, and growth of fraternal and mutual aid associations among African Americans. Systematic data are difficult to find, because black groups were often omitted from directories listing white associations. And fraternal groups have been out of fashion, as scholarly attention has focused on twentieth-century Civil Rights groups, and on African American churches, which were directly involved in the southern Civil Rights struggles of 1955 to 1965. My colleagues and I assembled evidence from scattered library archives, from old official histories of African American fraternal groups, and from proceedings, reports, and badges discovered in antique stores and purchased from eBay on the internet.
Groups that paralleled major white fraternal federations (e.g., Masons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, and Elks)
Groups that were distinctive to African Americans
In 1775, a young black man named Prince Hall addressed the Massachusetts Committee on Public Safety, advocating freedom for slaves. Rebuked, he and others protested, drawing on techniques used in the colonial struggles against Britain. In this context, Prince Hall and 14 other free black men attempted to gain admittance to the Boston Masonic lodge. They failed, but a lodge within the British forces admitted them, launching the PRINCE HALL MASONS, the earliest African American fraternal group in the United States. Until 1820, Prince Hall Masonry remained in New England, but it later spread southeast and west.
The PRINCE HALL MASONS of Birmingham, Alabama built this magnificent temple as their fraternal headquarters.
Substantial Prince Hall Masonic temples also existed in much smaller places.
In 1842, African Americans in Philadelphia petitioned to join the white Odd Fellows, but were “treated with contempt, and ... peremptorily refused.” Instead, African Americans organized the GRAND UNITED ORDER OF ODD FELLOWS IN AMERICA in 1843 -- which became the largest nationwide black fraternal group. The founding leader was Peter Ogden, “steward of the ship Patrick Henry, sailing between New York and Liverpool, England.” Already “an Odd Fellow by initiation into Victoria Lodge No. 448 at Liverpool, …he averred that dispensation could be secured through his Lodge … and that to be connected with England and the Grand United Order was to obtain Odd Fellowship in its pristine purity.” Charles H. Brooks, Official History …of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in America , p.13.
African American Odd Fellows retained -- and continued to celebrate -- their ties to the English Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. This ribbon badge was worn by members of one of the oldest continuous lodges of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in America, Friendship Lodge No. 898 of Philadelphia, which was established in 1847. Notice that the short drop ribbon of this badge displays crossed British and U.S. flags -- symbolizing the tie to the English Grand United Order.
Female as well as male African American Odd Fellows could join Households of Ruth affiliated with the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in America. This badge belonged to an officer, a Past Most Noble Governor, of the Band of Love Household of Ruth Number 823 of Pocahontas, Virginia. This Household was originally established in the 1890s.
The Grand United Order of Odd Fellows linked its magnificent headquarters in Philadelphia to modest lodges in remote locations, like this “colored Odd Fellows hall” in the tiny mining community of Giatto, West Virginia.
In 1870, a group of blacks petitioned for admittance to the white Knights of Pythias, and was denied. After several years of further petitions, a handful of men who could “pass” racially gained admittance to a white lodge. In Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1880, they used knowledge of Pythian ritual and procedures to launch a parallel federation among African Americans, the KNIGHTS OF PYTHIAS OF NORTH AMERICA, SOUTH AMERICA, EUROPE, ASIA, AFRICA AND AUSTRALIA. This badge is from the African American “Pride of the West” Lodge Number 5 in Columbus, Ohio.
The ANCIENT EGYPTIAN ARABIC ORDER OF THE NOBLES OF THE MYSTIC SHRINE OF NORTH AND SOUTH AMERICA is, like the white Shriners, a fraternal service body open only to high-degree Masons. It was founded in Chicago, Illinois in 1893, at the time of the World’s Fair. By 1895, there were already 23 temples in existence. Over the past century, the group has supported hospitals and medical research on diseases afflicting African Americans. A prominent black Mason, Medford, Massachusetts dentist Charles W. Harris, wore this badge to a national Black Shriners meeting in Chicago in 1943.
Intended as a national association parallel to the Knights of Columbus, the KNIGHTS OF PETER CLAVER was founded in Mobile, Alabama in 1909 by three laymen and four priests of the Josephite order, one of whom, Father John Dorsey, was an African American priest engaged in missionary work along the Gulf Coast. Racial segregation at that time had a discouraging impact on African American Catholics, and this new order was intended to include black men more fully in the faith. Eventually, the Knights of Peter Claver established its headquarters in New Orleans.
The IMPROVED BENEVOLENT AND PROTECTIVE ORDER OF ELKS OF THE WORLD was founded in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1898, after pullman porter Arthur J. Riggs, a former slave and founder of the Ohio black Knights of Pythias, managed to procure a copy of the white ritual and obtain a copyright from the Library of Congress (which the white Elks had failed to do). Because of his Elks activities, Riggs lost his job and was threatened with lynching. The black Elks simplified the ritual and built their order into a mass organization nationwide. This ribbon badge for Lodge 954 of the Chicago IBPOE of W is unusual because it has two clasped African American hands at the top.
The AMERICAN WOODMEN were an unusual African American group, in that they were launched from the West and spread to the South, Midwest and East. This fraternal insurance association was founded in Denver, Colorado, in 1901, and aims are captured in the mottos “Brotherhood of Man” and “Protection of the Home.” This ribbon badge comes from Philadelphia Camp Number 1.
All parallel black fraternal groups developed women’s auxiliaries. But unlike the other black fraternals paralleling white groups, the AMERICAN WOODMEN combined men and women in gender-integrated chapters. This Kansas City camp had seven women and six men in the 1930s.
Distinctive African American fraternal groups:
Often had Biblical names and themes;
Almost always provided social insurance and social services;
Involved women leaders and members alongside men;
Often got their start in one state, and diffused to nearby areas first.
The INDEPENDENT ORDER OF GOOD SAMARITANS AND DAUGHTERS OF SAMARIA was founded in New York City in 1847 as a gender-integrated fraternal group devoted to providing benefits and promoting total abstinence from liquor. Originally, the group was also racially integrated, though dominated by whites. Although statistics are lacking, over time, the Good Samaritans probably became one of the very largest African American associations. This ribbon badge comes from Golden Star Lodge Number 142, located at Burlington, North Carolina, Post Office Route 1.
The GRAND UNITED ORDER OF GALILEAN FISHERMEN was founded in Washington DC in 1856 as a fraternal and beneficial society open to both men and women. This order used symbols borrowed from Scottish Rite Masonry. By the of the nineteenth century, it had some 56,000 members in lodges located from New England to the South. This ribbon badge was worn to a state-level meeting by a member of King David Wing Number 9 of Norfolk, Virginia, organized in 1896.
A group of free and enslaved African American men formed the UNITED BROTHERS OF FRIENDSHIP in Louisville, Kentucky in 1861. This fraternal beneficial society spread from Kentucky into neighboring states, and added an auxiliary, the Sisters of the Mysterious Ten, in 1878. By the 1890s, there were reportedly some 100,000 members in 19 states. This ribbon badge belonged to the Worthy Treasurer of King Solomon Lodge Number 116 of Ennis, Texas.
This gentleman was a proud member of the UNITED BROTHERS OF FRIENDSHIP, probably in the state of Texas.
A major African American fraternal benefit society founded in the late 1867 in Baltimore, Maryland, the INDEPENDENT ORDER OF SAINT LUKE was soon reorganized from a headquarters in Richmond, Virginia. This was a gender-integrated order led for much of its existence by a remarkable woman, Maggie Lena Walker. This ribbon badge was worn during Grand Council sessions of the Order.
The KNIGHTS OF TABOR AND DAUGHTERS OF THE TABERNACLE were founded in Independence, Missouri in 1872 by Reverend Moses Dickson, a clergyman in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. By the 1890s, this benevolent fraternal group claimed about 100,000 members in 30 U.S. states and abroad. This ribbon badge was worn by a “Chief Mentor,” or lodge head, in the Knights of Tabor.
The GRAND UNITED ORDER OF TRUE REFORMERS was an insurance-oriented fraternal open to men and women. It was founded in Richmond, Virginia in 1881 by the Reverend William Washington Browne, a former slave and Union soldier, who became a teacher, temperance organizer, and African Methodist Episcopal minister after the Civil War. The Reformers built many institutions, especially in Richmond, and spread across the South, East, and Midwest by the early 1900s.
Founded in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1883, the MOSAIC TEMPLARS OF AMERICA was a fraternal beneficial society for both men and women. Founder J.E. Bush was born in slavery, and became a prominent Republican. Also born a slave, co-founder Chester W. Keatts rose to become a U.S. Deputy Marshall. The Templars started as a local group, and later expanded across the South and into other states. The group’s name connotes that African Americans were oppressed, as were the children of Israel protected by Moses. This ribbon badge was worn by a Worthy Assistant Scribe, an officer in a local Mosaic Templars lodge.
Advertisement to Join the Knights and Daughters of Tabor on a Fan from Indianola, Mississippi, 1930s Twelve Reasons Why You Should Enlist with the Knights and Daughters of Tabor 1. It is your own and not second-hand. 2. It was organized in honor of black heroes who fought and fell for our freedom. 3. Its laws are standard and comprehensive. 4. Its Ritualism embraces the character of ancient black people, and is amazingly rich, beautiful, and significant. 5. The Order is based on Religion. 6. It is a unit the world over. There is but one Tabor. 7. Its mission is to build a worldwide brotherhood and sisterhood. 8. It preaches the gospel of the better and higher life. 9. It operates a Taborian Home for the care of old and infirm members. 10. It provides relief locally for the sick and distressed. 11. It pays the most liberal policy to beneficiaries of deceased members. 12. Its mission is: “To help spread and build up the Christian Religion.”
“ Fraternal” connotes brotherhood, but black women were very active in lodges as well as churches.
parallel black groups developed women’s auxiliaries very early;
distinctive black fraternals were always gender-integrated, sometimes even at the level of local lodges; and women could be leaders of major gender-integrated groups (as, for example, Maggie Walker in the Independent Order of Saint Luke).
in many cities, black female lodges were often more numerous than black male lodges
women played strong roles as leaders in state and national conventions of African American orders.
Because African American lodges were so numerous, they offered extra chances for leadership.
Women were leaders, too, even before the feminist era.
African American fraternal groups were highly internationalist – they expressed universal values very concretely.
Black fraternal rituals were more likely to express values of community.
African American fraternal groups were central to struggles for equal rights in America. This has been overlooked, because previous scholarship has…
Focused only on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Focused only on black colleges, black churches, and the NAACP.
Defending the Right to Organize Between 1905 and 1929, African-American fraternal orders defeated a national, coordinated campaign inspired by Jim Crow to force them out of existence. They developed the legal, economic, political, and organizational resources necessary for a successful defense in local, state, and national courts and legislatures.
Organizing for Civil Rights Black fraternals went on to work for civil rights by encouraging activism among their members, fundraising, campaigning, lobbying, and sharing leadership networks. These activities culminated with the Elks decision to institutionalize civil- rights work as a central purpose of their order in 1927 and with the formalization of an alliance between a number of orders and the NAACP in the 1950s .
Civil-Rights Activism x x x x x x Elks (IBPOEW) x x x x x x Prince Hall Masons x x x x x x Shriners (AEAONMS) x Knights of Pythias x x x Indep. Orders Institution-alization Shared Leadership Lobbying Direct Action Funding Statements
Elks’ Civil Liberties Department Founded in 1927
Institutionalization of other activities
Network of Civil Liberties Leagues
Conscious strategy to attract members
Alliance with the NAACP
Figure 6.4. Black Elks Support Lobbying for Fair Employment Practices Commission, 1947. Source: Schomburg Library, Washington Eagle, November 1947, p. 1.
Figure 6.6. Black Elks Civil Rights Pamphlet, 1947.
Figure 6.1. Black Shriners Present Check to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Source: Schomburg Library, A. Hansen Studio.
African Americans made intensive and extensive use of fraternal forms of organization between the Civil War and the mid-20th century. Amidst poverty, little access to education, and precarious civil rights, African Americans created fraternal federations that bridged classes and places. Their groups involved both men and women, and served as “schools for democracy” for people denied normal roles in electoral politics or trade unions. Over the decades, fraternal groups fought to maintain their own right to organize, and then participated in the modern civil rights movement from the 1910s to the 1960s.