The Order of True Reformers was a
Fraternal Organization of African Americans organized in southern
states after the Civil War. The intention was to set up business and
social avenues in which Negroes could participate. By taking up the
task of insuring the lives of these members, several of these
societies became prosperous business enterprises. These orders began
to sell Negroes insurance when well established companies refused.
Washington Browne, a Methodist Minister of Richmond, Virginia
organized the association in 1881.
Against the back drop of many
misconceptions (i.e., blacks were inferior), Self Help Organizations
sprang up after the Civil War to address the needs of the newly freed
slaves. One of the most successful was The Grand Fountain of The Order
of True Reformers, founded by William Washington Browne, an Ex-slave
from Georgia. Browne set up a beneficial society which blacks could
join out of which insurance companies, businesses and banks were
formed. W.E.B. Du Bois characterized Browne's Fraternal Organization
as "Probably the most remarkable Negro organization in the country."
Young African Americans Entrepreneurs would do well to study Brown's
successes and failures - yet little is known of him or his
Browns' early childhood was spent as a
slave on a Georgia plantation. He was born October 20, 1849 and was
given the name Ben Brown. His parents were field slaves who were sold
from Virginia. He became a house servant, and a companion of his
owner's son. After his first owner died Brown was taken to Rome
Georgia and hired out. His new owner changed his name to William
Washington Brown. He was sold out, first to a shopkeeper, then to an
attorney. Brown was to be sold again, this time to Tennessee where he
became a Jockey. He was now far away from his family and anything that
seemed like home.
When the Union Army occupied Memphis
during the Civil War, Browne was placed on a plantation in Mississippi
for safekeeping. That did not deter the young man who escaped and made
his way to the Union forces. When he learned that the Union were
surrendering escaped slaves he ran away and worked for a Jewish
family. From there he went to Cairo, Illinois and worked in a saloon
(and acquired a life long horror of drinking). In 1864, when not yet
fifteen, he joined an infantry regiment in the Union Army as a paid
substitute and served until 1866.
He returned to Wisconsin to work as a
farmhand and resume his schooling. In September 1869, not quite twenty
years old, he went back to Georgia to see his mother. After the
sermons of a Georgia preacher occasioned his conversion, he briefly
studied for the ministry at Atlanta at a school which later grew into
Gammon Theological Seminary. On the basis of his limited education in
Wisconsin, he made his living as a school teacher in Georgia, then in
Alabama. In 1873 he married Mary A. Graham and in 1876 was ordained a
Minister in the Colored Methodist Church. This is a man who never gave
up no matter what his circumstances.
While in Alabama Browne became active in
the temperance movement. He worried that many Alabama blacks were
disenfranchised because they had been convicted for drunkenness and
also wasted money that poor people could not afford. "All the
masses of our Race own is [a grave of] three by six feet of earth."
Looking for an effective temperance organization, he hoped that he and
other blacks could join the Good Templars. When the Grand Lodge of
Alabama rejected the notion of permitting the organization of black
lodges, he accepted the alternative offered by Good Templars, the True
Reformers. Eventually Browne would leave Alabama and settle in
Richmond, Virginia where he formed the Order of True Reformers.
The Browne who built a powerful Grand
Fountain (GFUOTR) in Virginia was a product of the Post-Reconstruction
South. Black powerlessness against growing white racism increased his
innate caution. He tried to appease the whites who controlled
government and business because he knew he needed sympathetic white
judges, legislators, and bankers. A few years after his death, The
Order's weekly Newspaper, The Reformer, editorialized:
"While we shall never stoop to kiss the hand that smite us, yet we do
not believe we can accomplish as much by extreme radicalism as by
conservatism." Accepting white supremacy and racial segregation
as facts of life beyond immediate amelioration, Browne preached a
gospel of money, morality, education and family, racial solidarity and
self-help. While whites were quarreling over the Negro problem, Browne
urged his fellow blacks, "Let Us Work It Out Ourselves."
Below are listed some of the achievements
of The Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers:
FROM SLAVERY TO BANKERS:
With one hundred members, the relict of an
old organization, bearing nearly the same name, and one hundred fifty
dollars, he (William Washington Browne) launched the Grand Fountain,
asking at the same time the prayers and confidence of the race. He was
looked upon by many as an impostor, and by others as demented, because
he proposed to reform the whole [insurance] society management of the
The Savings Bank of the GFUOTR was
incorporated in Virginia on March 2, 1888 and in 1892 the real estate
department was established. By 1900 they owned 15 halls, 3 farms, 2
dwellings, 1 hotel and leased 14 halls. Total value of property was
$223,500. In January 1893 they began publishing a bimonthly newspaper.
Eventually it became a weekly and by 1900 had a circulation of over
8,000. In 1893 they began fund raising for Old Folks Homes. In 1897
they purchased a farm near Richmond for $14,400 for the first home.
In 1899 the Order received a charter for
the Reformers' Mercantile and Industrial Association, the purpose of
which was to manufacture, buy and sell, at wholesale or retail, or
both, groceries, goods, wares, implements, supplies, and articles of
merchandise of any and every description etc. and included the
insurance feature in Organizing the Order known as the True Reformers.
object of the organization is:
fraternally all colored persons of sound bodily health and good
moral character, and who are socially and otherwise acceptable to
give all moral and material aid in its power to its members and
those dependent upon them.
educate its members socially, morally and intellectually.
establish a fund for the relief of sick and distressed members, or
for such other purposes as the Association may determine.
establish a benefit fund, from which on satisfactory evidence of the
death of a member, who has compiled a sum with all its lawful
requirements, a sum not exceeding five thousand dollars shall be
paid to the family, heirs, blood relatives, affianced husband,
affianced wife, or to persons dependent upon aid member as the
member may direct.
for its members such other advantage as are, from time to time,
designated by the Constitution and Laws of the Association."
In 1885 there was organized and put in
operation a department for the children known as the ROSEBUD
DEPARTMENT. The object of this department was:
"To discipline the young, to train them
to practice thrift and economy, and to give lessons early in the
business methods of life, to establish a fund for the relief of sick
members and a mortuary fund from which, on satisfactory proof of
death, of a benefited member a sum not exceeding thirty-seven
dollars shall be paid to parents or guardians."
This was the beginning of the Negro
businessmen in insurance and banking. Other associations affiliated
with the Order were St. Lukes, the Good Samaritans, the Galilean
Fishermen, and the United Brothers of Friendship. Mrs. Maggie L.
Walker, the head of St. Lukes, established a bank for that order and
thus became the first woman in the United States to be the president
of such an institution. Raleigh, North Carolina and other parts of the
south had similar organizations patterning themselves after Browne's
success. In 1910 the bank set up by The True Reformers collapsed and
with it the popularity of William Washington Brown.
However, William Washington Browne will go
down in the annuals of African-American History as a leader, visionary
and "True Reformer."
David M.: (1994): The Black Lodge In White America: "True
Reformer" Browne and His Economic Strategy: Maryland:
University Press of America