“Let brotherly love continue.” Odd Fellows motto
African American civic and social clubs served a variety of purposes. Many organizations were born in reaction to the larger world, where Jim Crow dictated that blacks were not treated equally or with respect. African Americans formed groups that gave members a sense of belonging to something wholesome. Clubs became havens from disrespect and ill treatment.
After the Civil War, many African Americans migrated to cities and towns to reunite with family members and to seek better living conditions. Civic and social groups helped those newly arrived to adjust to unfamiliar social climates. Social, political, and economic needs determined that blacks formed more organizations than whites and remained members longer than their white counterparts. Beginning in the 1850s, Central Virginia’s African Americans founded nearly 100 civic and social groups. Directories of the 1890s listed scores. Some existed only briefly, leaving nothing but their names behind, while others thrived for decades.
The practices of African American civic and social clubs provided opportunities for their members to be recognized as people with specific positive characteristics. Mottos, colors, and flowers delivered messages about members. The Victory Club, established during World War II, used its red, white, and blue colors to broadcast the club’s patriotism. Groups not represented by colors, flowers, or slogans were sometimes known by reputation or by what members held in common. The Hillsmen were hard workers employed at the Foundry or U.S. Post Office. Primrose Social Club members were married women who did more than socialize; they helped younger women and provided insurance benefits to their own family members when sickness or death came.
Commonalities cemented togetherness. Identical attire and handsome rings, pins, and badges reflected similarity of thoughts and ideals. Secret rituals instilled feelings of uniqueness. Passwords and special handshakes known only to members did the same.