Many people familiar with Greek life on campus associate the start of such rich tradition with the early 1900’s. The truth is that blacks have been active in fraternal organizations since around 1775. Certainly back in those days, notions of paraphernalia, strolling, or even pledging were present.
These organizations were formed purely for the survival and prosperity of the black community. Social interaction, providing illness and burial benefits, assisting members in financial distress and encouraging economic cooperation and entrepreneurship were among the top goals and objectives. They also created a comforting and pleasing atmosphere of commonality that white fraternities would not allow them.
One man in particular, William Washington Browne, made a tremendous impact on fraternal societies and forever affected the effectiveness of these structures throughout black America.
Born of pure African blood, unlike many of the leaders of his time, William Washington Browne was born on a plantation in Georgia on Oct. 20, 1849. He was taken away from the plantation at which his parents lived and auctioned off. As a result, he refused to yell “Buy me master, buy me,” as was requested of him. Finally, he was beaten into submission.
After years of slavery, he made his way to the north. While helping light-skinned fugitive slaves during the outbreak of the Civil War, he was told “you are so black, you will have to look out for yourself.”
He spent a lot of time there helping other fugitives, working as a farmer and even enlisted in the army. Becoming homesick, he wrote his former master to find out if his mother was still alive. He moved back to Georgia and settled away from his self-described “unholy” ways of the north to discover his commitment to teaching and religion. He studied theology and in 1873, became minister of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in Alabama.
Browne’s leadership style was tagged as bold and aggressive. He bragged that he “never mingled with white men,” and that “you do not see me among them except on business.”
Speaking before a mixed-race audience, he proclaimed that “a bullet from a Winchester” might be the right tool to help convince whites not to threaten blacks.
He had stopped drinking since his move from the north and joined a temperance group, his motive being to end disenfranchisement of black men linked to intoxication. Countless black men charged with public intoxication had lost their right to vote. He challenged the white temperance organization, the Good Templars. After a long consideration they granted his request and founded the True Reformers. He then dedicated the rest of his 22 years of life to the organization and at the age of 27 was elected worthy grand master of the Alabama branch.
Brown worked terribly hard to ensure the group’s financial success. He traveled throughout the south on foot, with little to eat, preaching in pulpits everywhere. His hard work paid off.
In the late 1880s the True Reformers became the dominant black fraternal society throughout Virginia and opened a savings bank in 1888. By 1907, it paid out over two million in insurance benefits to its members. The organization directly helped its 70,000 members in some way, shape or form.
There are many people from disadvantaged backgrounds who turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones. In this case from slavery to success. William Washington Browne is a shining example of a man with a vision who accomplished what he saw.
Contact Kimberly Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org