The forced transportation of millions of Africans into slavery in the New World set in motion an important but muchneglected tradition of secret societies. The West African nations from which most slaves came had secret societies of their own, and these provided models that black people in the New World drew on for their own societies.
The first documented African-American beneficial society was the African Union Society, founded by a group of former slaves in Providence, RI in 1780. The Union provided sickness and funeral benefits to members, raised money for charities in the black community, and networked with similar organizations locally and throughout the country. Like most of the earliest black societies in the New World, it attempted to raise money and hire ships for a return to Africa. Despite the obstacles, projects of this sort managed to repatriate tens of thousands of African-Americans to West Africa, and founded the nation of Liberia.
By the time of the Revolution, though, most American blacks had been born in the New World; their goals centered not on a return to Africa but on bettering themselves and securing legal rights in their new home. The rise of a large population of free African-Americans in the large cities of the east coast inspired new secret societies and beneficial organizations with less direct connections to African tradition. Among the most important of these were Masonic lodges, working the same rites as their white equivalents. From 1784, when African Lodge #459 of Boston received a dispensation from the Grand Lodge of England, Prince Hall lodges – named after the founder of African-American Freemasonry – became a major institution in African-American communities and provided a vital social network for the emergence of the earliest black middle class. By the beginning of the American Civil War Prince Hall lodges existed in every state in the North, and had a foothold in the few Southern states with a significant free black population.
Freemasonry was not the only secret society of the time to find itself with a substantial African-American branch. A social club for free blacks in New York City, the Philomathean Institute, applied to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) in 1843, intending to transform their club into an Odd Fellows lodge. The IOOF rejected their application, and the Institute then contacted the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in England and received a charter. With its innovative system of sickness and funeral benefits, Odd Fellowship found an immediate welcome among African-Americans, and expanded into the West Indies and black communities in eastern Canada as well.
While Prince Hall Masons and Grand United Order Odd Fellows were the most popular fraternal societies among African-Americans before the Civil War, many other societies emerged in the black community during that period. Secret societies faced competition from public voluntary organizations rooted in Protestant churches, however the same cultural forces that drove the expansion of secret societies in the white community helped African-American secret societies hold their own and expand, especially in Maryland, Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania, where more than half the free black people in America lived between 1830 and the Civil War.
The years after the American Civil War saw vast economic and cultural changes across the defeated South, as former slaves tried to exercise their new political and economic rights and conservative whites used every available means to stop them. The Ku Klux Klan used secret society methods to unleash a reign of terror against politically active African-Americans. While the Klan’s power was broken by federal troops in the early 1870s, “Jim Crow” segregation laws passed thereafter imposed a rigid separation between black and white societies south of the Mason–Dixon line. Ironically, this led to the rise of an educated black middle class in the South as black communities were forced to evolve their own businesses, banks, churches, colleges – and secret societies.
Masonry and Odd Fellowship were joined by more than a thousand other fraternal societies among Americans of African ancestry. Most of these grew out of the black community itself and drew on African-American cultural themes for their rituals and symbolism, but some borrowed the rituals and names of existing white fraternal orders as an act of protest. The Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World (IBPOEW), for example, came into being in 1898 in Cincinnati, Ohio when two African-American men, B.F. Howard and Arthur J. Riggs, were refused membership in the local Elks lodge because of their race. Riggs obtained a copy of the Elks ritual, discovered that the Elks had never copyrighted it, and proceeded to copyright it himself in the name of a new Elks order. Despite lawsuits from the original Elks order, the IBPOEW spread rapidly through African- American communities and remains active to this day.
During these same years fraternal benefit societies became one of the most popular institutions in American culture, offering a combination of initiation rituals, social functions, and insurance benefits. Americans of African descent took an active role in the growth of the new benefit societies. They had more reason than most to reject the costly and financially unsteady insurance industry of the time, since most insurance companies refused to insure black-owned property. Since nearly all fraternal benefit societies founded by whites refused to admit people of color, blacks founded equivalent societies of their own.
Between 1880 and 1910, the “golden age” of African- American secret societies, lodges vied with churches as the center of black social life, and became a major economic force in the black community. One example is the Grand United Order of True Reformers, founded by the Rev. W.W. Browne in 1881 at Richmond, Virginia. In the two decades following its founding, the order grew from 100 members to 70,000, expended more than $2 million in benefits and relief funds, and established a chain of grocery stores and its own savings bank, newspaper, hotel, and retirement home.
The problems that beset most American fraternal benefit societies in the years just before the First World War did not spare the African-American societies; like their white equivalents, few used actuarial data to set a balance between dues and benefits, and aging memberships and declining enrollments became a source of severe problems. The True Reformers were not exempt, and went bankrupt in 1908. The support of the black community kept many others ‘going, until the Great Depression of the 1930s and the mass migration of blacks to northern industrial cities during the Second World War shattered the social basis for their survival and left few functioning. Sociologist Edward Nelson Palmer commented that “[a] trip through the South will show hundreds of tumbledown buildings which once served as meeting places for Negro lodges” (Palmer 1944, p. 211) – a bleak memorial to a proud heritage of mutual aid.
Like its white equivalent, black Freemasonry found a new lease of life in the 1950s, as servicemen returning from the Second World War sought active roles in their communities, but few other African-American secret societies benefited much from this. In the second half of the twentieth century, civil rights organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), radical groups such as the Black Panther Party, and new religious movements such as the Nation of Islam (also known as the Black Muslims) absorbed much of the energy that had driven secret societies a century earlier.
- Prince Hall Masonry
- African secret societies
- Odd Fellowship
- Ku Klux Klan
- Benevolent Protective Order of Elks (BPOE)
- fraternal benefit societies
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006