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In Sickness and in Death

“ . . . drawing on the African Negro’s penchant for burial pomp, secret societies have been developed mainly around the idea of taking care of the sick and the dead.”
Carter G. Woodson, The African Background Outlined, 1936

Mutual aid societies were the first organizations formed in African American communities. Often they were associated with religious organizations such as prayer groups or churches. Mutual aid societies took care of people when they were ill or disabled. Their services, usually temporary, were meant to keep people off the public rolls or out of poorhouses. To respond to the desire of African Americans to take care of themselves, some mutual aid societies began to include health and death benefits through insurance policies. For pennies a month, members paid dues that entitled them to benefits when they became ill or passed away.

One of the area’s earliest clubs, the True Reformers, insured members and paid death benefits. The Peaks View Order of the Eastern Star and the Grand Court of Calanthe did the same. People often had to prove that they were in good health before they could secure a policy and that they had not brought on their illness through bad habits that went against the philosophy of the society. People were encouraged not to smoke, drink, or stay in “bad air” for long periods of time.

African Americans in Central Virginia founded organizations to procure their own burial sites. Many believed in the African notion that people could not rest in death unless they had a suitable burial space. In 1896, Campbell County’s Archer Creek Burial Society paid $40 for four acres of land to use as a graveyard. The group’s constitution outlined benefits for members depending on whether they joined at the beginning of their lives or at the end. The club’s youngest members were 12 years old.

Exhibit Items

  1. Archer Creek Burial Society officers
  2. Insurance policy, Odd Fellows
  3. Receipt book, Henry S. Fowler Post #347
  4. Zeta Phi Beta flower bearers

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