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The United Order of Tents of J.R. Giddings and Jollife Union

The United Order of Tents

by Alice W. Campbell

Portrait of Annetta M. Lane
Annetta M. Lane (1838- Oct. 24, 1908)
Image: Public Domain

The United Order of Tents is a Christian benevolent organization, founded in 1867 by two formerly enslaved women, Annetta Minkins Lane of Norfolk, Va., and Harriet R. Taylor of Hampton, Va. It is the oldest Black women’s organization in the United States. Throughout its long history, the largely secret society has provided financial assistance and burial insurance, facilities to care for the elderly, support for orphans, and scholarships for African American students. While some of their larger projects and gatherings have been visible to the general public, the Order has engaged in primarily unrecognized community service.

Membership in the United Order of Tents of J.R. Giddings and Jollife Union is open to “All women between 18 and 70 years of age…who are of good moral character and free from bodily ailments that would render them burdensome to the order.” Sisters come from various educational and professional backgrounds, without regard for wealth or social status. Local membership is organized into “tents” – groups of like-minded women within a city that can be as small as five women to as large as 300 women (Schley, 2013, 20). These tents are further organized in districts. The district which includes the founding Norfolk tent is known as District No. 1 (Schley, 2013).

As its membership grew, the United Order of Tents expanded beyond Virginia into four designated districts. At its height in the 20th century, national membership reached approximately 50,000 women, with chapters organizing in the South and Northeast (Schley, 2013; Virginia DHR, Historic Marker KV-38). Adult and junior members have gathered in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York (Heritage, 2017).

The sisters of the United Order of Tents are bound together in “Union, Liberty and Fidelity.” (Schley, Appendix C, 230). They are committed to work they regard as their Christian and civic duty.

We believe that it is our duty as Christians and citizens of the United States of America to do all within our power to assist in attending to the sick, to raise in the heart a fountain of purity and love such as will be a joy to the living and a source of consolation to the bereaved. We believe it is our duty to encourage the youth in seeking their highest potential, to care for the aged, respectfully bury the dead, promote sisterhood and love among ourselves and our posterity, invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God (United Order of Tents website).

Newspaper illustration of a "Degree Member" wearing a ceremonial sash.
A Degree Member.
The Sun (New York, NY) 06 May, 1888, p.5
Library of Congress, Chronicling America

Organizational history

The United Order of Tents traces its heritage back to the Underground Railroad. According to family history, Annetta Lane was a nurse on the Virginia plantation where she was enslaved, in a trusted position that permitted freedom of movement. The ports in the Norfolk and Portsmouth area were active sites on the Underground Railroad, and Lane became an agent, carrying messages and helping others to escape (King, 1912; Greenridge, 2017). Two abolitionists, Joshua Reed Giddings and a man known only as Jollife (likely Giddings’ law partner, John Jolliffe) were also involved in the activities of the Underground Railroad.

After emancipation, Lane and Harriet Taylor continued aiding the Black community by founding a benevolent society whose members pledged to care for one another (Schley, 2013). According to researcher Mary M. Schley, “The founding members viewed the Order as a ‘tent of salvation’ amidst the turmoil of Reconstruction and intended to uplift the African-American community through mutual-aid and personal betterment” (Schley, 2013, Abstract, ii).

The founding Norfolk chapter, now known as the United Order of Tents, Southern District No. 1, is the current national headquarters. According to their website, the Order, which was founded in 1867, was incorporated on June 17, 1883 by the Circuit Court of the city of Norfolk as “The J. R. Giddings and Jollife Union” and began operations under that name. It was licensed as a fraternal benefit society in 1906 (Heritage. 2017). Despite its corporate name, the Order was popularly known as “The United Order of Tents of J.R. Giddings and Jollife Union,” and on June 28, 1912, a charter amendment was granted changing the organization’s name to its present form (Heritage, 2017).

After Annetta Lane’s death on October 24,1908, leadership of the large and influential women’s organization passed to her daughter, Sallie Lane Bonney (b.1867). Bonney was president and secretary of the United Order of Tents J.R. G and J.U. and senior superintendent of the Northern, Eastern and Southern divisions of the organization (“Sallie L. Bonney” 1923). Under Bonney’s leadership, membership in the United Order of Tents expanded to new states and more than tripled, expanding to new states. Also during Bonney’s term, Tents Hall, an organizational headquarters was built in Norfolk. At her death, the Black press praised Bonney’s business acumen, the strong staff she’d assembled, and her own exceptional leadership (“Order of Tents Mourns,” 1923).

Sallie Bonney died suddenly on Nov. 22, 1923 having worked for the Order until the day before her passing. She was beloved as a virtuous and dedicated pioneer of fraternalism. The New Journal and Guide reported that thousands, mostly women, attended her funeral at St. John’s A.M.E. Bute St. Officers of the United Order of Tents traveled from New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina, Delaware and Virginia to attend. Mourners dressed in Order robes and regalia lined the streets for three full blocks as the hearse proceeded to Calvary Cemetery for the interment (“Order of Tents Mourns,” 1923).

1930-1945 era printed postcard
Rest Haven, Hampton, Va.
Image: Boston Public Library, CC-by-2.0

Visible projects

Known as a fiscally responsible and conservatively managed organization (“Tents Progressive Female Order,” 1929), the women of the Order have a proud history of self sufficiency (Carlton-LaNey 1989). In 1897, the United Order of Tents, Southern District No. 1 established the Rest Haven Home for Adults, a facility primarily intended for elderly sisters who had no family to care for them. Once membership no longer filled the available beds, the Rest Haven Home for Adults opened to both men and women without a connection to the Order. Operated for 105 years, the Home carried no debt at its closing on February 22, 2002 (Heritage, 2017).

In addition to elder care, the Order provided assistance to relatives upon members’ passing. In 1904, The United Order of Tents of J.R. Giddings and Jollife Union endowment department was founded to manage death benefits. By 1912, Norfolk-born reporter George F. King reported that the group had paid out $138,007.16 (King, 1912).

The Order’s commitment to the elderly and the bereaved eventually led the organization to imagine larger projects and pursue outside funding. In 1994, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded more than $2.7 million to the United Order of Tents for the construction of apartments for the elderly in Rocky Mount, NC. Additional HUD grants provided for 40 units in Norfolk (the Annetta M. Lane apartments), and 41 units in Danville, Va. (Hairston and Johnson apartments) (Housing, 2017).


As their membership ages and the popularity of fraternal organizations declines, some Tents chapters have disbanded, while others (including chapters in New York and South Carolina) have faced the loss of their buildings (Stewart, 2022; “Must board building,” 2012). Nevertheless, the sisterhood of the United Order of Tents remains active and committed, periodically reexamining their mission to meet community needs and respond to members’ interests (Schley, 2013,17-18; Heritage, 2017). Though fewer in numbers, the organization continues to build on its more than 150-year legacy of community service.


For further reading:

Reflections on Black Sisterhood and the United Order of Tents April 2, 2022. Event hosted by the Brooklyn Public Library, Macon Branch. via

Carlton-LaNey, Iris, Hamilton, Jill, Ruiz, Dorothy, Alexander, Sandra Carlton, (2001). “Sitting With the Sick”: African American Women’s Philanthropy. Affilia, 16:4, 447-466.

Harty, Justin (2020). Black Contributions to Mutual Aid, Social Welfare, and Social Work History.

Peebles-Wilkins, Wilma (2006). Historical Perspectives on Social Welfare in the Black Community. Social Welfare History Project.

National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, Inc. (1896-), Social Welfare History Project

Trattner, Alison (2016). The Tents of 87 McDonough Street (documentary film). via

Women Who Can Keep a Secret. All That Can Be Learned About the Grand United Order of Tents. (1888, May 6).  The Sun (New York, NY), p.5. Archived in Wayback Machine, Internet Archive See also, Chronicling America.


Order of Tents Mourns Death of its Leader. Thousands Attend Funeral of Mrs. Sallie L. Bonney; Grand Lodges from All parts of Country Represent. (1923, December 1). New Journal and Guide, 1.

Britt, K. M. and Gregory, E. E. (n.d.). Clubhouse Excavation: The United Order of Tents. Dilettante Army.

Capable Newspaper Men Who Are Making Good. George F. King Retained by Greensboro (N. C.) Daily News. (1912, January 13). Afro-American, Baltimore, Md., 7.

Carlton-LaNey, Iris (1989). Old Folks’ Homes for Blacks during the Progressive Era. Journal of sociology and social welfare, 16 (3), 43-60.

Greenidge, Kaitlyn. (2017, October 6). Secrets of the South. A weekend with the United Order of Tents, a semi-covert organization of black women. Lenny.

Heritage. United Order of Tents website (2017, May 31). Archived in Wayback Machine, Internet Archive

Housing. United Order of Tents website (2017, May 31). Archived in Wayback Machine, Internet Archive.

King, George F. (1912, September 7). Founder of the Order of Tents. Remarkable Work of the Late Annetta Lane. Assisted Many to Freedom. The Afro-American Ledger. 7.

Roach, Janet. (2021, May 5). 153 years later, Christian fraternal group started by slaves still thrives. ABC – 13 WVEC (Norfolk-Portsmouth, VA).

Sallie L. Bonney Claimed by Death (1923, November 24). New Journal and Guide, 1.

Schley, Mary Margaret (2013). The United Order of Tents and 73 Cannon Street: A Study of Identity and Place. Master’s Thesis. Clemson University.

Stewart, Dodai. (2022, December 20). A Secret Society Tied to the Underground Railroad Fights to Save Its Home. New York Times.

Tents Progressive Female Order. (1929, August 31). New Journal and Guide, 14.

United Order of Tents, Southern District No. 1 website.

United Order of Tents (Marker KV-38).

United Order of Tents must board building by July. (2012, June 5). WCSC News, Charleston SC, A Gray Media Group, Inc. Station.

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