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African American Fraternal Lodges
By Stuart W. Doyle

Fraternal Lodges

Developing & Expanding the Village 

in Rural Southern Virginia

By Stuart W. Doyle

 

From Reconstruction through the mid 20th century, a "village" did a lot more than raise a child when it came to building a strong community. Rural black communities historically have relied upon the generosity and sacrifices of their extended family and neighbors to rear their children and meet economic needs. For example, it was not uncommon for the court to have no record of a child adoption since relatives or neighbors. Frequently a childless couple or even a large household would assume parental responsibility of orphans or abandoned children. Material and economic support sometimes came from benevolent whites, who long had been integral to the black world whether it was as slave owner, closet abolitionist, or employer.

After the abolition of slavery, benevolence and community-building emerged through the establishment of mutual aid societies and fraternal orders in addition to the strengthening of the black church. These organizations typically functioned as an expanded resource to help families through hard times and offer social and educational benefits. Many benevolent societies established before the end of slavery also helped the transition of blacks into their life of freedom by providing them with financial resources..

Before the 1930s, for the most part, blacks had to work together to ensure their academic, social, and economic endurance. In southeastern Virginia, black fraternal orders served their own with a vigor and commitment that deserve more prominence in the documentation of the nation’s history. The following is a sampling of the benefit societies and lodges in Sussex County, Virginia, with African American memberships through the 1930s.

The National Ideal Benefit Society. Headquartered in Richmond, Va., the Hudson Lodge was established in Sussex County’s Grizzard community in 1929. Eliza Wright, a charter member, held the lead position during Hudson’s early days. Members of this insurance and benevolence organization were called Ideals.

The Trinity Lodge No. 3, a chapter of the Grand Lodge of St. John Watchmen. Headquartered in Richmond, Va., the St. John Watchmen aimed to "improve [the] condition of its membership morally, socially, physically and financially," according to its Constitution. Lee Taylor, a Sussex resident, served as head of this lodge during the 1920s.

The Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. African American men joined Odd Fellow lodges that were chartered by The Grand United Order of Odd Fellows (as opposed to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows). The Grand United Order of Odd Fellows was founded in 1843 with a charter from the Grand Lodge in Manchester, England. See Charles H. Brooks,  The Official History and Manual of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in America (New York: Books for Libraries Free Press, 1971 [1902]

The Household of Ruth. This organization was the women's auxiliary to the African American Odd Fellows order. Household of Ruth was organized in 1857 for the admission of the wives or women related to men in the fraternal order of Odd Fellows.

The United Order of True Reformers. Founded in 1881 by William Washington Browne (1849-1897), this organization was most influential not only in the small rural community of Sussex, but also it ascended to national prominence. 

Reverend William Washington Browne was born a slave in Habersham County, Georgia. Sold into Tennessee at age eight, Browne joined the Union forces at age fifteen and served two years until 1866. While working as a farmhand, he gained some education at a school in Wisconsin. In 1869 he returned to the South and worked as a school teacher in Georgia and Alabama and in Atlanta studied for the ministry and became in 1876 an ordained minister in the Colored Methodist Church.

It was in Alabama that Browne first organized the "fountains" that would become the United Order of True Reformers. The formation of "fountains" (lodges or chapters) were a means used to pool money and buy land.

"Let us stop playing, trifling and wasting our time and talents, and scattering our little mites to the four winds of the earth, and let us unite ourselves in a solid band." Browne left Alabama in 1880 and settled in Richmond, Virginia, where he built his powerful Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers (GFUOTR) with branches in twenty states by 1893-94.

The national organization thus had its headquarters in Richmond, Virginia. True Reformers offered this reason for the "fountain" terminology:

"The names of our societies are Fountains. A fountain is always running; it sends forth its waters, pure and clear at all times. A fountain cleanses itself, but a pond becomes stale and stagnant, and has to be ditched off or it will make everyone sick who lives near or by it." (From Twenty-five Years History of the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers, W. P. Burrell and D. E. Johnson Sr., 1909)

There were at least three fountains in the vicinity of Jarratt (Sussex County, Virginia), including the Emporia branch located in Greensville County, headed by Sussex resident James H. Hunnicutt. The True Reformers offered far more than the standard African American benevolence societies of that era, which mostly were cash benefits to members for family burial expenses.

In 1889 the GFUOTR organized the first chartered black bank in the United States, the Savings Bank of the Ground Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers, with deposits amounting by 1907 to one million dollars. The fraternal order owned real estate, purchased a farm, a hotel, owned over a dozen halls; they also became involved in insurance, which provided for the support of widows and the education of orphans.

In 1885 the Order organized and put in operation a department for children known as the Rosebud Department. The Rosebud fountains for youth addressed "the great need for reform among . . . children in teaching them that there is a higher and nobler purpose for which they can use some of their pennies besides spending them all for delicacies and toys; teaching them to unite themselves together for the bond of union and love, and to assist each other in sickness, sorrow and afflictions …"

The GFUOTR became a model for banking and insurance enterprises throughout the South. With the death of Browne in 1897, the bank, however, survived only another decade and collapsed in 1910 as a result of mismanagement and embezzlement. The True Reformers continued, nevertheless, as a fraternal order and insurance agency until its demise during the Great Depression.

Sources: The Official History of Freemasonry Among Colored People in North America (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969 [1903]), 67-83.

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Stuart Doyle, a past president of the Central Florida Chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society,  recently published Roots Exposed, an extensive family history comprising 15 branches of his ancestry. Doyle has resided in Orlando, Florida since 1989 but is a native of Richmond, Virginia. The southeastern Virginia counties of Sussex, Southampton and Greensville and their pre-1900 African and Native American inhabitants are the focus of his historical and genealogical research and public presentations. Doyle earned a bachelor’s degree in English Language & Literature from the University of Virginia (Charlottesville, 1981) and master’s degree in journalism/communications at Temple University (Philadelphia, 1988). His professional career field is public relations and corporate communications management.

Updated 08/29/2013
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