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  • African American Fraternal Associations in American History:An Introduction
  • Joe W. Trotter (bio)

The growth of black fraternal associations is closely intertwined with the larger history of voluntary associations in American society. In the aftermath of the American Revolution, compared to its European counterparts, the United States soon gained a reputation as "a nation of joiners." As early as the 1830s, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville described the proliferation of voluntary associations as a hallmark of American democracy. In his view, such associations distinguished America from the more hierarchically organized societies of Western Europe. "The citizen of the United States," Tocqueville (1947 [1835]: 109) declared, "is taught from his earliest infancy to rely upon his own exertions in order to resist the evils and the difficulties of life; he looks upon social authority with an eye of mistrust and anxiety, and he only claims its assistance when he is quite unable to shift without it." Near the turn of the twentieth century, a writer for the North American Review described the final decades of the nineteenth century as the "Golden Age of Fraternity" (Harwood 1897).

Beginning with the Masonic Order during the eighteenth century, the Euro-American fraternal movement diversified and expanded during the nineteenth century. In relatively rapid succession during the 1800s, American advocates of fraternalism broke ranks with their European forebears and formed independent Odd Fellows, Masons, Elks, Knights of Pythias, and other fraternal orders. By the late nineteenth century, an estimated 350 fraternal orders enrolled more than 6 million members, representing well [End Page 355] over a third of all the nation's adult men. These organizations initiated rituals of brotherhood; shaped gender and class identities; and guarded members against hard times through the development of unemployment, health, burial, and widows' funds. Moreover, whatever the class, gender, or ethnic make of these societies, recent scholarship underscores a consensus around ideas associated with traditional middle-class "values of sobriety, thrift, temperance, piety, industry, self-restraint, and moral obligation" (quoted in Dumenil 1984: xii; Carnes 1989; Clawson 1989; Beito 2000).

As American-born whites and immigrants formed increasing numbers of voluntary associations, so did African Americans. Black fraternalism began with Freemasonry in the late eighteenth century and spread among free blacks during the 1800s. By the late nineteenth century, black secret societies included not only the parallel Euro-American Elks, Masons, Odd Fellows, and Knights of Pythias, but also a variety of independent orders, including the United Brothers of Friendship and Sisters of the Mysterious Ten, the Independent Order of St. Luke, and the Grand United Order of True Reformers. Some of the national societies had quite large memberships by the early twentieth century: Odd Fellows (304,000), Pythians (250,000), Masons (150,000), and the Elks (70,000) (Fahey 1994: 10).

In order to circumvent the racially exclusionary policies of American orders, African Americans sometimes sought and received charters from European bodies (particularly from England, as in the case of the Prince Hall Masons and Odd Fellows). Even more than the white societies, black secret orders served multiple functions. They helped to shape African American identity through rituals of brotherhood; protected members against poverty and other misfortunes; and supported movements for social change, including the antislavery movement of the nineteenth century and the modern civil rights and black power movements of the twentieth century. Black secret societies also offered more opportunities for prospective members to join multiclass and gender-integrated orders than did their white counterparts (ibid.; Mjagkij 2001; Muraskin 1975).

Despite the energetic growth of black fraternal orders alongside and distinct from their white counterparts, scholars of American and African American history have given black fraternalism insufficient attention. On the one hand, the neglect of black fraternal orders is related to emphases on the role of the black church, social clubs, and civil rights and political organizations in research on the black experience. The black church, for example, [End Page 356] is often portrayed as the incubator for other black institutions and organizations, including black fraternal orders. But the African Methodist Episcopal church itself actually emerged from the work of Philadelphia's free African Society, a voluntary organization under the leadership of Richard Allen and Absolom Jones...


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