Segregation Did Not Stifle Self-Help Efforts in Black Communities

Commentary By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

Self-help efforts are fascinating and laudable stories. A particularly interesting one is how, in an age of de jure segregation, charitable and creative African Americans were agents of change in their communities and were able to alleviate various economic and social problems.

Although African-American churches had existed before the Civil War, the majority of blacks started their own churches and denominations during Reconstruction. In these houses of worship, congregants had more freedom of religious expression and leadership opportunities. The church also served as a central point of the African-American community and functioned as a charitable organization. Many congregations encouraged and supported education and literary efforts while some started missions for the disadvantaged and homes for the elderly and orphaned.

The growth of mutual aid societies coincided with the expansion of black churches. Young Mutual Society of Augusta, Ga., for instance, offered insurance to members who paid weekly dues. Insurance companies soon grew out of such efforts. In Durham, for example, seven African-American entrepreneurs started North Carolina Mutual and Provident Association. Its name later changed to North Carolina Mutual Life.

Charitable African Americans also pooled their money and formed institutions to meet community needs. In such fashion hospitals and orphanages—to name two examples—were started. In 1896, North Carolina African-Americans raised enough money to help start and maintain the Pickford Tuberculosis Sanitarium in Southern Pines. The sanitarium charged in advance and could treat up to 30 patients. To meet the needs of homeless and dependent African-American children, Rev. Augustus Shepard had an idea: start an orphanage that later became known as the Central Orphanage of North Carolina. The idea became a reality in 1882, when the Colored Orphanage Association was formed. A year later the association purchased a 24-acre farm in Oxford.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the growth of fraternal orders coincided with the aforementioned charitable efforts. The more popular ones were the Masons and the Odd Fellows.

The genesis of African-American freemasonry was in 1775. Prince Hall and 14 other Bostonians joined an English army lodge that year, and after the Revolutionary War, his and other black lodges separated from the Grand Lodge of England. After the Civil War, Prince Hall lodges started forming all across the South as well. In North Carolina, a Grand Lodge, comprised of lodges in New Bern, Fayetteville, Wilmington, and Raleigh, was formed in 1870. Joseph Hood, an A.M.E. bishop in New Bern, was elected grand master.

These fraternal organizations complemented the mutual aid societies. Some assistance programs included donations for members’ medical expenses, short-term financial aid for those experiencing financial troubles, and benevolence plans for widows of former members.

In the early years, membership included mainly the elite in African-American communities, but in time more from the middle and working classes joined. In North Carolina, membership expanded to include women, albeit in a separate branch with male leadership. In 1870, the Order of the Eastern Star was formed. According to historian Angela Hornsby-Gutting, these female branches “served as an adjunct or auxiliary to Prince Hall masonry.”

By 1910, there were 3,336 Prince Hall lodges in the United States, and almost 78 percent of them (2,600), with approximately 150,000 members, were located in the South. Much to the surprise of many, membership continued to increase during the first 30 years of the 20th century, particularly North Carolina, which saw significant growth. For instance, 2,037 North Carolinians filled the ranks of 90 lodges in 1900. Ten years later, membership swelled to 10,000 in 358 lodges. Black freemasonry membership did not decline until after the Great Depression and during the New Deal.      

These efforts show that even the oppressive nature of segregation could not stifle the universal desire to help one’s fellow man in times of spiritual or financial need.