In 1899, the GUOOF was the most powerful organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There were 19 lodges and over 1000 members in the city. The organization had $46,000 in property, including two lodge halls. The organization also had its own newspaper, The Odd Fellows Journal.
By 1900, the GUOOF in America was the second largest African-American fraternal organization with over 200,000 members and over 2,000 lodges. Its membership consisted mainly of lawyers, doctors, military officers, ministers, and other professionals.
Proposed Placing of Historic Slave Trail Marker in Richmond, VA
Established in England in the mid-1700’s, the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows began as a philanthropic organization that welcomed both white and black membership. 1813 witnessed a significant rift in the Order’s structure when many of the members broke away to form the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, or I.O.O.F. Setting its sights on American enrollment, this new faction sent members overseas and by 1819 established its first official American chapter in Baltimore at the Seven Stars Tavern. Sadly, this new iteration of an originally inclusive and unbiased organization refused to honor African American membership and denied all-black or mixed-race groups of Odd Fellows official charter status.
Over the course of the following decades, formal chapters of the I.O.O.F. spread throughout the northeastern and mid-Atlantic regions of the United States. While their denial of black membership quickly associated the I.O.O.F. with whites, African Americans seeking a recognized Odd Fellows chapter followed their own course of action. In 1843, African American members of a yet unrecognized group in New York met Peter Ogden, a British black man and member of the original Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. A steward on the transatlantic vessel, the Patrick Henry, Mr. Ogden travelled frequently between Liverpool and America and during a visit to England appealed to the Grand United Order for a charter. As this founding group still honored the fundamental principles of the Odd Fellows, the Grand United Order did not discriminate against skin color and granted Mr. Ogden a charter on March 1, 1843. He returned to New York and established the first African American lodge of Odd Fellows later that same year.
Unfortunately, such liberties did not extend to blacks in the South. Prior to the Civil War, strong sanctions prohibited blacks from gathering in public and while clandestine fraternal orders certainly existed, meetings and member identity were kept in absolute secrecy. As one can imagine, the I.O.O.F. maintained a devoted following in Richmond during this time and by 1841 boasted a strong enough membership to warrant a dedicated meeting house. Built on the northeast corner of Franklin and Mayo, the Odd Fellows Hall hosted all manner of events on its stage: opera performances, dance ensembles and the occasional visit by General Tom Thumb, the famous midget. In the basement, another popular activity took place: the auctioning of slaves. Announced by hanging a red flag on the basement door, these open sales of men, women and children led to an annual dispersion of over forty thousand blacks throughout the slave trading states in the antebellum years. During years of particularly brisk trade, this number could double as parents and children, husbands and wives and brothers and sisters were separated indefinitely.