The Founder of the Order of True Reformers: The Story of
William Washington Browney

by Anita Wills
Copyright 1998-1999 by Anita Wills. Reprints require approval by the author.

NOTE: As an African-American writer and columnist I feel a duty to share inspirational stories with readers. One of the writing projects I worked on required me to do research on "The Order of True Reformers."  Since February is African-American History month I felt that William Walker Browne's story achievements should be highlighted. I hope that the readers will be as inspired as I was.

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. 1William 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 organization.

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 Negro race.

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.

The object of the organization is:

"To unite fraternally all colored persons of sound bodily health and good moral character, and who are socially and otherwise acceptable to each other.

And to give all moral and material aid in its power to its members and those dependent upon them.

To educate its members socially, morally and intellectually.

To establish a fund for the relief of sick and distressed members, or for such other purposes as the Association may determine.

To 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.

To secure 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."
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1Fahey, David M.: (1994): The Black Lodge In White America: "True Reformer" Browne and His Economic Strategy:  Maryland: University Press of America

Copyright 1998-1999 by Anita Wills.   Reprints require approval by the author.

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