“Friendship is essential to the soul.” Omega Psi Phi motto
The earliest European-based secret societies, including the Masons, trace their origins to ancient times when men who shared common interests came together for protection. These societies developed and handed down rituals that derived from Egyptian lore and culture. When American Masons denied Revolutionary War soldier Prince Hall the privilege of membership, he applied directly to British Masons for a charter. The British granted Hall’s request. Under Prince Hall’s leadership, African American Masonic lodges were established in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia before the early 1800s.
As early as the 1860s, Lynchburg men established Masonic and True Reformer chapters. When local governments did not help African American residents, black mutual aid and burial societies, along with such secret societies as the Masons and Odd Fellows, provided for those in need. Their efforts ensured that black widows and orphans would not go hungry, that those who could work would not go without employment, and that those who died would not be buried in paupers’ graves. African American mutual aid and benevolent societies also provided leadership-training opportunities for black men when few existed elsewhere.
During the late 1800s, American men, both black and white, became joiners of groups. The 1890s have been called the Golden Age of Fraternalism. Many African American groups evolved at this time in response to racial segregation and discrimination. During the first decade of the 20th century, a generation of those born free who had attended college organized the first black fraternities. These groups went back to Africa for their traditions and to ancient Greece for their names. In a larger world where black men were not often befriended, friendship became a goal to be attained and maintained. In 1919 the Lynchburg Knights of Pythias repeated to each other, “Let brotherly love continue.” In this and other men’s groups, like-minded individuals came together and supported each other, not just during their college years, but all their lives.
When “separate but equal” barred blacks from social opportunities offered by the larger society, African American men established social networks for themselves and their families. The organizing of such groups in the early 1900s suggested that 30 years after Emancipation, groups within black communities were determining their own needs and fulfilling their own dreams, even as segregation became stricter and more all-encompassing. In Central Virginia, one such group was the Revelers, formed by black men at Virginia Seminary after World War I to “encourage and promote social, civic, and literary development.”