Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in America (1843-present)
By: Michael Barga
Background: Mutual aid societies were created by blacks throughout the country starting in the early days of the United States and climaxing in the late 19th century. Most often, the groups provided benefits related to illness, death, and other family matters as insurance does today. While churches were often charitable within their community regarding these matters, blacks who attended as slaves or free men faced discrimination by those who gave out aid. This church-charity connection led to many mutual aid societies which connected to a particular religious creed, although other groups decided to form their identity more broadly.
Introduction: The Grand United Order of Odd Fellows was created in Europe and is a fraternal brotherhood group that includes mutual benefits. Lodges modeled after their European counterparts spread among white communities in the United States during the early 19th century, but they were not officially incorporated in the Grand United Odd Fellows. Blacks who were interested in starting their own branch had discussions with whites in these unincorporated lodges. While these efforts were unsuccessful, they were able to secure incorporation with the Order through a lodge in England. They officially started activities in 1843, and the early membership drew from two established black groups who lacked mutual benefit components: the Philomethan Literary Society and the Philadelphia Company and Debating Society.
Development and Activities: One of the key players in the development of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in America was Peter Ogden. He was a person of color who traveled between New York and Liverpool, England through his service as a steward on a ship. While in England, he became an Odd Fellow and was a member long before the idea of an American lodge for non-whites was considered.
He reportedly swayed American blacks interested in the Odd Fellows to focus their attention on gaining affiliation with an English lodge rather than lodges in the United States. Ogden presented the admission application in person to the appropriate committee during one of his voyages while in England. While some in the American white lodges felt the application would be denied, the [English] Lodge did not hesitate, it is said, but gladly accepted…knowing no men by color.1
The dispensation was granted for the Philomathean Lodge, No. 646, New York, NY, and Ogden became their first leader. With this first establishment of a black lodge came the ability to grant dispensations for the creation of more, and the Hamilton Lodge was established in New York in 1844. Ogden was instrumental in making sure the process was handled correctly for the second group, as well as the many other lodges opened during the 1840’s.
In 1845, the first general meeting of the Annual Moveable Committee (A.M.C.) included six lodges that had been created in the United States. By the time Ogden passed away in 1852, the total membership was 1470 people in 25 lodges spread throughout the Eastern seaboard with locations as far as Bermuda. The practical benefits of membership assisted in defraying expenses of burial, sickness, disability, and widowhood. While no exact amounts were ensured to members, the success of the Order suggests its ability to provide a reasonable level of support to those in need.
Affirming mutual benefits was the Odd Fellows’ explicit purpose, but it considers these aid activities a small part of the Order’s more generally defined moral and social outreach. Those who were sick were to be visited by other members not just given financial support, and the hope was to reinforce in members a just view of duties and responsibilities that would promote fraternal relations among all in the community. Vows were made to remain sober, honest, industrious and benevolent, a good husband, a kind father, and a loyal and virtuous citizen.1 A separate section addressed the use of the Order to mankind and particularly distinguished the way the Odd Fellows unite men internationally towards virtue and wisdom in a peaceful way.
Early leadership for other black mutual aid societies, like the African Union Society, tended to stem from their founder. For the Odd Fellows, roles were highly defined and often short-term, and the best demonstration of the Order’s principled structure is Ogden’s role. Though he was the founder and had great knowledge of rule and regulation application, neither his knowledge nor his status allowed the group to allot him disproportionate formal power.
Such leadership restrictions were common among Masonic lodges and other secular groups, but the Order set itself apart from such groups in content. Despite their Mason-like power structure, the Odd Fellows utilized Biblical content in their rituals for lodge establishment. Many historians note the Odd Fellows as one of the most significant black mutual aid societies even at its beginning stages in the 1840’s, and the hybrid of non-denominational Christian content and a Mason-modeled organizational structure may have been why.
Another notable element of the Odd Fellows was their inclusion of women through the Household of Ruth, the Order’s counterpart. In 1857, Patrick H. Reason led the successful efforts to officially associate a female group with the United Order in England. Activities began the next year. The Household of Ruth met triennially and greatly resembled the rules and regulations, including its largely self-governing nature. It is notable that women did not join the Order of Odd Fellows itself, but the formation of a separate organization rather than gender integration was common for its time.
The Odd Fellows also varied from other fraternal organizations in its public nature. While some historians have indicated secrecy in the Odd Fellows, it is clear that they celebrated publicly as a group and were even covered occasionally in newspapers like The Washington Republican:
Yesterday was a gala day for our colored citizens, the occasion being a grand procession of the different lodges of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, which visited Washington for the purpose of celebrating the 28th anniversary of the Order, and are holding a convention in Georgetown, at Market House Hall.
The announcement in yesterday’s “Republican” caused crowds to assemble on the sidewalks and at the available places to witness the procession, and the outpouring of citizens never was before equaled on a similar occasion.1
Unfortunately, the 1873 report describes a Washington, D.C. where discriminatory attitudes were very present at that time and would grow stronger in the early 20th century.
By the 1880’s, the Odd Fellows underwent a remarkable expansion period and went far beyond the local pockets of membership of its early days. The development occurred in a time of increased racial consciousness and institutionalized self-help for blacks. From 1868-1886, total number of lodges and membership were increased almost ten-fold. Over the next ten years, the 1,000 lodges doubled, while membership was increased to 155,537 from the 36,853 total in 1886. The growth continued during the early years of the 20th century.
Prominent members of the black community throughout the United States at the turn of the 20th century were Odd Fellows, although their political views sometimes greatly differed. Benjamin J. Davis, Sr. was a member of the Georgia Odd Fellows and allowed the Tuskegee Institute to write editorials in the Independent, the newspaper Davis founded in 1903. On the other hand, E. H. Morris, a wealthy lawyer and two-term state legislator in Illinois accused the Tuskegeean of believing in Negro inferiority, racial segregation, and eschewing politics.2 The diverse political opinions of Davis and Morris demonstrate well the political tolerance of the Order in action.
In 1913, the churches were considered the leaders of the black community. They continued to be at the head of civil rights activities in the 1960’s, although the Odd Fellows and similar fraternal played roles throughout the struggles that led to greater equality. The organization continues to operate today in a new headquarters at Philadelphia. A quarterly bulletin and annual conference are the main activities, and the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in America continues its peaceful mission today.
Conclusion: While some black organizations, like the Brown Fellowship Society, based themselves on local white organizations, blacks preceded whites in gaining official membership to the English-based Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. The practical gains for blacks through their local lodge, especially at the end of the 19th century, were often far superior to those provided by other shorter-lived mutual aid societies. Membership also meant fair treatment and peaceful inclusion by an international institution, which must have brought the benefit of great encouragement to those facing everyday institutional disenfranchisement in their own nation.
1. The Official History and Manual of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in America by Charles H. Brooks. Accessed through Googlebooks: http://books.google.com/books?id=Sj-jv2g7utcC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false Pages 12, 125, 229.
2. Negro Thought in America by August Meier. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966: 238.
“Early Black Benevolent Societies, 1780-1839” by Robert L. Harris, Jr. The Massachusetts Review 20(3), Autumn, 1979.
“The Beginnings of Insurance Enterprise among Negroes” by James B. Browning. The Journal of Negro History 22(4), Oct., 1937.
“Negro Organizations” by B. F. Lee, Jr. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 49, Sept., 1913.
The Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in America website: http://guoofamerica.com/oddfellows_natl/Home.html
Peter Ogden – http://guoofamerica.com/oddfellows_natl/History.html
Household of Ruth – http://guoofamerica.com/oddfellows_natl/Household_Of_Ruth.html
For More Information: See The Official History and Manual of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in America or contact the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in America’s Honorable Grand Secretary at http://guoofamerica.com/oddfellows_natl/Contact.html