1905

By 1905, African American people in Virginia found an alarming number of the civil rights they had acquired during Reconstruction stripped from them or under attack. Especially after the controversial Virginia Constitution of 1902 disenfranchised black people en masse, African Americans found very little political success in the struggle to retain and expand their civil rights. Effectively powerless in the political world, black Virginians turned inwards to what they could control, focusing their efforts on social and economic development within their community.

Throughout 1905, fraternal organizations and secret societies such as the Knights of Pythias expanded their reaches and activities, strengthening the social backbone of the African American community throughout Virginia. Simultaneously, black-owned businesses, particularly insurance companies and banks with direct connections to fraternal organizations, achieved new levels of financial success. Inspired by the prosperity enjoyed by established companies, African American entrepreneurs founded enterprises in a variety of sectors, diversifying the economy and creating employment opportunities for black men and women. Embracing his role as an influential leader, John Mitchell, Jr., relentlessly praised the efforts and accomplishments of black institutions; he frequently advertised the benefits of joining groups in which he held leadership positions. The optimistic writing of Mitchell highlights how fraternal organizations and businesses built the foundations of social and economic progress for black Virginians in 1905 and beyond.

Near the turn of the century, black fraternal organizations including the Knights of Pythias, the Independent Order of St. Luke, and the True Reformers played important social roles in the African American community. The year 1905 witnessed rapid expansion by the Knights of Pythias, who established numerous lodges, their locations to facilitate local meetings, across Virginia. In just one year, the Knights of Pythias, under the leadership of Grand Worthy Counsellor John Mitchell, Jr., initiated new lodges in the towns of North Danville, Norfolk, Roanoke, Hanover, Waynesboro, and Hot Springs. In the same period, Courts of Calanthe, clubs in the female department of the Knights of Pythias, sprung up in Staunton, Suffolk, South Boston, Lynchburg, and Clifton Forge. Along with praising these initiation ceremonies in nearly every issue of the Richmond Planet, Mitchell regularly raved about the myriad social benefits of joining the Knights of Pythias, writing that the group was “founded on Friendship, based on Charity and established on Benevolence” in order “to care for the sick, bury the dead, to care for the widows and orphans.” The Knights of Pythias gathered the funds to guarantee these community-building benefits by collecting monthly dues from members. In August of 1905, the Planet included an emotional letter from the widow of a former Pythian, in which she thanked the Knights for supporting her financially after the death of her husband; the persistence of such evidence throughout the year legitimized the claims made by Mitchell about the greatness of his organization and demonstrated the influence wielded by fraternal societies in strengthening the African American community.

Beyond offering benefits for members, these organizations planned a variety of public events that brought together regular people and important decision-makers who pushed for the improvement of African American life. In April, the Knights of Pythias held an anniversary celebration at the Fifth Street Baptist Church; Reverend Dr. W. F. Graham “urged economy, industry, Temperance and unity to lead [the] race to the Land of Promise.” The next month, the Knights of Pythias led the Memorial Day celebration on Leigh Street, putting on an extravagant parade to bring black Virginians together. The hall for the Independent Order of St. Luke also hosted functions that advanced the condition of the African American community. In April, Reverend Dr. W. F. Graham joined the leader of the Independent Order of St. Luke, Maggie L. Walker, to lecture to the women of Richmond about the importance of taking care of the elderly. Any woman could attend the program for free, but members of the organization accepted donations for the local Old Folks’ Home. Later in the year, several musicals and other performances took place at St. Luke’s Hall, establishing the home of the Independent Order of St. Luke as a prominent meeting place in Richmond. The hall of the True Reformers, another fraternal organization, similarly served as a community hub. In December, the True Reformers invited leading black educators from around the country to congregate in their hall and discuss the state of education for African Americans. This gathering, like many others supported by fraternal societies, directly promoted the improvement of the black community. The frequency of such productive functions in 1905 illustrates how the multifaceted benefits provided by fraternal organizations like the Knights of Pythias, the Independent Order of St. Luke, and the True Reformers contributed to the unification and advancement of black Virginians throughout the year.

In addition to enhancing black Virginia socially, fraternal organizations also commonly contributed to economic growth as the societies formed and administrated banks. In the twenty years leading up to 1905, African Americans seeking to encourage their people to “accumulate property and bank account” founded four banks in Richmond, including the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank and the True Reformers’ Savings Bank, which were immediately linked to fraternal organizations. Another significant bank, the Mechanics’ Savings Bank, did not explicitly associate with a society, but under the leadership of John Mitchell, Jr., it developed close relations with the Knights of Pythias.  The year of 1905 brought high levels of growth to black-owned banks as more African Americans were prompted by leaders such as Mitchell to actively improve their financial situations. The Richmond Planet frequently detailed the successes of these banks, describing their acquisitions of “the most desirable pieces of property on Broad Street” and crediting leaders like Maggie Walker, the president of the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, for their “thriving business.” The promotion of these banks by Mitchell, while in his own monetary interests, also exhibited his desire to improve his community by motivating black people to pursue financial stability. The remarkable progress made by the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, the True Reformers’ Bank, and the Mechanics’ Savings Bank in 1905 illustrates the economic significance of fraternal societies as they organized community support for black-owned businesses.

John Mitchell, Jr., also gave publicity to black-owned businesses without major affiliations with fraternal organizations; he often highlighted the prosperity of the American Beneficial Insurance Company, the largest African American insurance company in Richmond. During 1905, the Richmond Planet frequently featured articles recognizing the American Beneficial Insurance Company as “the greatest Negro insurance company in the world” and “one of the most prompt and reliable companies of its kind.” The Planet even proclaimed that “in the history of the insurance world, never before has a company grown so rapidly, become so popular as the American Beneficial Insurance Company of Richmond.” While this abundant and generous praise lacked statistical evidence, these hyperbolic declarations indicate that Mitchell, sought to stir up economic optimism amongst black Virginians. Mitchell employed similarly positive language when advertising new businesses from photographic studios to medical practices. For example, he strongly endorsed the People’s Real Estate and Investment Company only a few months after its formation, arguing that the manager’s “reliability is unquestioned” and that “it is beginning its labors with every prospect of success.” Mitchell praised such economic endeavors because these commercial projects promoted capital growth, property acquisition, and financial stability among African Americans, allowing them to break economic glass ceilings and reach higher classes. The immense profitability of black-owned businesses, particularly banks and insurance companies, enabled the economic progress essential to the advancement of the African American community in Virginia.

In 1905, fraternal organizations like the Knights of Pythias, the Independent Order of St. Luke, and the True Reformers unified black Virginians under common principles, solidifying the social bonds of the community. Booming businesses such as insurance companies and banks, often assisted by the support network of fraternal groups, brought unprecedented financial progress to African Americans. The Richmond Planet, under editor John Mitchell, Jr., spread the word about these blossoming institutions to emphasize the social and economic improvement of the black community in Virginia. By broadcasting news about the advancement of African Americans throughout 1905, the Richmond Planet counteracted the disillusionment affecting its readers and provided black Virginians with much-needed hope.

Ryan Shah