At the height of their popularity between 1870 and 1930, fraternal societies in the United States defined community roles for many middle-class men and women from coast to coast. The groups arose as local chapters of national organizations, forming essential relationships between citizens and their neighbors. While their economic and political power derived mainly from the distribution of membership dues for various charities, such as local lobbying, community insurance, mutual aid, scholarships, or nonalcoholic leisure, the most significant fraternal societies met with pomp and decoration to cement individual identities to the rituals of status associated with male Masonic orders originating in Europe, such as the Freemasons. African-Americans were early and important agents of fraternal orders, though their organized practices were both symbolically similar and socially distinct from the white fraternal orders operating in nearby locations. In any event, American fraternal orders performed ornate ceremonies to embed member identities in mythological narratives about past connections to great leaders, and used racial and gender divisions to maintain the illusion of the group's selectiveness for its members, who desired more social status from their middle-class lives.
Since fraternal orders originated in Europe, the development of the American orders was always rebounding over the Atlantic, especially to England and its colonies. The first black member of any fraternal order was reputedly John Pine (1690–1756), a member the English Freemasons in the Globe Tavern Lodge in Morgate, England. He may have served as a critical precedent for Prince Hall, probably the primary early figure in African-American fraternal history. In 1787 Hall led a group to seek a Masonic charter from England, which was then and remains now the most important fraternal order. The charter issued to him for African Lodge 459 was legitimate and remains a controversial point of origin for a schism within American Masonry. White Massachusetts elites rejected Hall's leadership based on his skin color and applied for a separate charter, and fraternal orders thus developed segregated, with the Prince Hall faction becoming the eponymous Prince Hall Masonry. While contemporary Freemasons now claim to be legally integrated, the separation of fraternal orders explicitly by race was unique to the United States.
The Boston Prince Hall lodge dispersed and mutated for a few decades. By the time its remaining leader, John T. Hilton, organized his own fraternal order in 1847, other Prince Hall lodges had already spread west and south. The Grand Lodge of Ohio alone disseminated the order into Kentucky, Indiana, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, and Missouri. As the order traveled, its influence grew in new communities. Soon the antebellum period saw the rise of several new African-American fraternal orders. The Grand United Order of Odd Fellows established itself in New York in March 1843, and like the Prince Hall Masons sought its legitimacy abroad from an Odd Fellows lodge in England. By the late 1850s, it had over sixty-one different lodges, and such growth was typical. Other orders grew from charismatic and original leadership: when Moses Dickinson founded the Twelve Knights of Tabor in 1872, he had already operated a secret Knights of Liberty group on the Mississippi River composed of men who aided runaway slaves.
The Civil War and Reconstruction period saw an even more explosive rise in African-American fraternal orders, with African-Americans creating new local organizations or observing white formations and fusing elements of different local cultures. The Colored Knights of Pythias, for instance, began in Washington, D.C., in 1863, and like Prince Hall and Odd Fellows followed the same traditions as similarly named white institutions in the same cities and towns. Some groups, like the Independent Order of Good Templars or Grand United Order of True Reformers, grew from temperance or insurance societies that actually included white members, and then splintered during the onset of Jim Crow. The ex-slave Mary Prout founded another important society from Baltimore, the Independent Order of Saint Luke, in 1867. The Prince Hall lodges and Odd Fellows began their own interdependent female orders during that era, and many others followed.
Throughout the decades leading to the close of the nineteenth century, the fraternal societies recruited members, collected dues, performed rituals and rites, administered regalia, and provided money for burial services. By 1900, membership continued to expand and fraternal treasuries funded independent savings banks and mortgage lending. These orders flourished through the 1920s, and membership in more than one order was common in certain places. The orders built temples, which served as spaces for multiple purposes, whether political, economic, or leisure. Many orders grew politically active. The Order of the Eastern Star, the female component of the Prince Hall Masons, lobbied for antilynching bills in Congress. Despite racist suffrage laws, they exerted pressure on local economies through middle-class purchasing power, and influenced decisions about spending in the regular fraternal publications, where friendly businesses advertised. Regionally, their competition for legitimacy and power in local communities often became protracted legal battles in the public courts.
The Great Depression and World War II sent most orders into bankruptcy, and those that survived grew slowly in the twentieth century. Although academic scholarship largely ignored or forgot fraternal orders until the late twentieth century, Prince Hall Masonry and its sister component, Order of the Eastern Star, boast hundreds of thousands of members in the United States, the Caribbean, the Bahamas, Liberia, and Ontario.
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York, houses countless African-American fraternal publications, as does the Livingston Masonic Library of Grand Lodge in Manhattan.
Mjagkij, Nina, ed. Organizing Black America: An Encyclopedia of African American Associations. New York: Garland, 2001.
Muraskin, William A. Middle-Class Blacks in a White Society: Prince Hall Freemasonry in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.
Trotter, Joe. "African American Fraternal Associations in American History: An Introduction." Social Science History 28, no. 3 (2004): 355–366.
justin rogers-cooper (2005)
fra·ter·nal / frəˈtərnl/ • adj. 1. of or like a brother or brothers: his lack of fraternal feeling shocked me. ∎ of or denoting an organization or order for people, esp. men, that have common interests or beliefs.2. (of twins) developed from separate ova and therefore genetically distinct and not necessarily of the same sex or more similar than other siblings. Compare with identical (sense 1).DERIVATIVES: fra·ter·nal·ism / -ˌizəm/ n.fra·ter·nal·ly adv.