“We are the keepers of the ancient secrets;
for we walked the world when it was new.”
– Eileen Lynch
When people of African descent formed their own institutions in America, they often reached back to the continent from which their ancestors had come. Before 1800, Philadelphians of color named their first mutual aid society the Free African Society. Those who procured New York’s first burial ground for blacks called it the African Burial Ground. The first schools for blacks in America, as well as the African Methodist Episcopal Church (the first African American Christian denomination), claimed Africa in their names.
To many black civic and social organizations, Africa was more than a word. West African initiation rituals, burial practices, ceremonial dress, and movement became elements of African American group life. Mutual aid societies may have come from African belief that all members of a community are extended family who should be treated as such when in need. The secret societies of West Africa may have given birth to American black groups in which members were trusted to follow rituals unknown to the community at large. The white clothing worn by those participating in initiation and funeral ceremonies resembled West African ceremonial attire. African and African American ceremonial headwear had similar shapes and forms and, in some instances, held the same significance.
The African American mutual aid societies of the 19th century boasted competitive drill teams. Team members moved in ways similar to West African ceremonial dancers. Their movements developed into a type of group line dance called “stepping.” At first, stepping was done only by black fraternity men. When women adopted the practice near the middle of the 20th century, they adapted the men’s in-line movements in ways thought more suitable for women. The Good Samaritans and Daughters of Samaria also moved in ways shaped by African ceremonial dancers.
While the names of civic and social clubs in Central Virginia do not include the word “Africa” or “African,” their practices and rituals reveal African influence. Eastern Star women wear all white as they encircle the coffins of deceased members while repeating words meaningful to them. Clubwomen also lay out the bodies of the deceased. The mourners know that “Nobody can look at [the] face without the sisters’ say-so.”