FRATERNAL ORDERS, AFRICAN AMERICAN
Much of African American existence in the United States was characterized by legal and customary racial segregation. Denied access to economic avenues, black citizens had no alternative other than to pool their resources and expertise to develop parallel structures within their own partially enclosed world. Equally, the institutions that they created also flowed from their cultural desires to construct their own identity. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century the institutional structure of the African American community manifested itself in the church, mutual benefit organizations, newspapers, and fraternal orders.
Secret rituals, ceremonies, and impressive regalia characterized African American fraternal orders. Membership gave the participants prestige and standing in the community. The Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons (AF&AM) and Grand United Order of Odd Fellows were the two oldest fraternal orders. The Masons obtained a charter from England and established the first African American Masonic lodge in Boston in 1787. The Odd Fellows organized their first lodge in 1843 in New York. Other important fraternal groups included the Fraternal Order of Knights of Pythias, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, and the Mystic Order of Shrine, or Shriners.
Fraternal orders, however, provided more than just prestige for their members. These societies provided many benefits to the African American community. Services such as burial insurance, donations to the needy, support for the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), and the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) emanated from the organization. They were also self-help groups that emphasized thrift, industry, and morality. Additionally, fraternal orders provided a training ground for leadership. Within a society that emphasized the degradation of blacks, these organizations provided an environment where they could actively use their talents and abilities.
Consequently, African American fraternal orders multiplied rapidly in the South after the Civil War, and when Oklahoma was settled in the late nineteenth century, blacks brought fraternal groups with them. The Masons, Knights of Pythias, Elks, Odd Fellows, and Shriners would all play an important role in the fabric of the Oklahoma community. The lodges offered recreation, companionship, recognition, and talent development, which made life in a segregated world more bearable.
Most early twentieth-century African American leaders belonged to one of these groups. Green I. Currin, the first black territorial legislator, served as grand master of the St. John Grand Lodge of the AF & AM Masonic Order of Oklahoma, and Roscoe Dunjee, civil rights advocate and owner of the Black Dispatch, also published the Bookertee Searchlight, a newspaper of the Knights of Pythias. Around 1912 in the All-Black town of Boley the Masons built a Masonic temple that was the tallest building between Oklahoma City and Okmulgee. The lodge hall served as state headquarters before it burned in the early 1950s. Whether in an All-Black town or the segregated urban district, fraternal orders served as an epicenter for community cohesion in the first half of the twentieth century.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Jimmie Lewis Franklin, Journey Toward Hope: A History of Blacks in Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982). August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, Plantation to Ghetto (New York: Hill and Wang, 1969).
John H. L. Thompson
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