Black Fraternal Orders

Black Fraternal Orders


ChickenBones: A Journal

for  Literary & Artistic African-American  Themes



Before the 1930s, for the most part, blacks had to work together

to ensure their academic, social, and economic endurance



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.  /


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.

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.”

We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America.

This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as “the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field ‘cut their teeth’.”

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Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

By Randall Kennedy

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The finest chapter in The Persistence of the Color Line is so resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the basis for a book of its own. That chapter is titled “Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism.”  Recalling some of the criticisms of America’s past made by Mr. Obama’s former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with feeling about his own father, who put each of his three of his children through Princeton but who “never forgave American society for its racist mistreatment of him and those whom he most loved.” 

His father distrusted the police, who had frequently called him “boy,” and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedy’s father “relished Muhammad Ali’s quip that the Vietcong had never called him ‘nigger.’ ” The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in sympathetic historical light.

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake.

She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—


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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies. 

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Karma’s Footsteps

By Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie

Somebody has to tell the truth sometime, whatever that truth may be. In this, her début full collection, Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie offers up a body of work that bears its scars proudly, firm in the knowledge that each is evidence of a wound survived. These are songs of life in all its violent difficulty and beauty; songs of fury, songs of love. ‘Karma’s Footsteps’ brims with things that must be said and turns the volume up, loud, giving silence its last rites. “Ekere Tallie’s new work ‘Karma’s Footsteps’ is as fierce with fight songs as it is with love songs. Searing with truths from the modern day world she is unafraid of the twelve foot waves that such honesties always manifest. A poet who “refuses to tiptoe” she enters and exits the page sometimes with short concise imagery, sometimes in the arms of delicate memoir. Her words pull the forgotten among us back into the lightning of our eyes.—Nikky Finney /  Ekere Tallie Table

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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updated  5 September 2012




Home Fifty Influential Figures  The Old South   The Education of Black Folks in the South: 1860-1935   Stith-Mason Family Reunion 

Related files: Sussex County: A Tale of Three Centuries / Public Education in Sussex County / The Official History of Jerusalem Baptist Church 

Fraternal Lodges Developing & Expanding the Village  Rainbow Tea at Jerusalem  50 Years of Progress Since Brown 

Commonwealth of Virginia Expresses  Profound Regret  / Virginia Prohibits the Teaching of Slaves, Free Negroes, or Mulattoes to Read or Write, 1831

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