Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World
The Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World or IBPOEW is an African-American fraternal order modeled on the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. It was established in 1897. In the early 21st century, with 500,000 members and 1500 lodges in the world, the IBPOEW claims to be the largest black fraternal organization.
The Order claims descent from the Free African Society, the first formal black society in America, founded in 1787 as a mutual aid society by Absalom Jones and Richard Allen in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Its formal organization as a separate Order, however, began in February 1897, when it was established in Cincinnati, Ohio, by city residents B. F. Howard and Arthur J. Riggs, a Pullman porter who had been born into slavery. The men had met in another association and wanted to establish a chapter of Elks; the white organization refused them admission. (Note: In 1972 the white-majority BPOE opened admission to African Americans and other minorities.) Riggs had gained a copy of the BPOE ritual and received the first copyright for it, establishing their organization in September 1898. This was a period of a rise in black fraternal associations, with men organizing to work in community and create strong networks.
The BPOE disputed their use of the ritual, but they held the copyright. In 1912 the Improved, Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World was sued by the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks in the State of New York to keep them from using the "Elks" name. The New York Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the BPOE, Judge Barlett stating, "If the members desired the name of an animal there is a long list of beasts, birds, fishes which have not yet been appropriated for such a purpose." The decision was apparently ignored after the IBPOEW made a minor change in the letters on their seal.
The IBPOEW founded a Civil Liberties department in 1926. It was active in opposing the segregation of schools in Gary, Indiana, the next year. The number of blacks in the city had increased markedly during the Great Migration, as men were attracted from the rural South to the city's industrial jobs. At the same time, there were numerous European immigrants settling in the city.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the IBPOEW was active in the effort of blacks to "gain work while resisting union exclusion, workplace segregation, and unemployment." According to historian Venus Green, the Improved Elks labor activism was distinguished from other black fraternal organizations by their "cross-class alliances, male/female solidarity, racial unity, a willingness to join coalitions across ideologies and to engage in multiple forms of struggle, especially militant mass mobilization". In the IBPOEW, ideologies ranged from Christianity to communism, but the members worked together to achieve labor goals.
From 1950 to 1966, the IBPOEW owned and operated as their National Shrine "The John Brown Farm" (also known as "The Kennedy Farm") in southern Washington County, Maryland. That property was the site where John Brown had trained his troops in anticipation of his raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 that begat the Civil war and the abolition of slavery. The Elks purchased the property as a memorial to Brown and built several buildings on the 235 acre property, including a 50' by 124' auditorium that was used as a meeting place for Elks gatherings of up to three thousand persons on Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends. The auditorium was rented on summer weekends by a local black entrepreneur, John Bishop, who booked into that venue dozens of the biggest stars of rhythm and blues, including Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, B. B. King, Eartha Kitt, Otis Redding, Etta James, the Coasters, and the Drifters.
The organization and titles of the Improved Elks are reportedly modeled on that of the BPOE. Its Grand Lodge meets annually, and the organization is headquartered in Winton, North Carolina. Like the BPOE, the Improved Elks have an officially recognized female auxiliary, the Daughters of the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World. They were organized by Emma Virginia Kelly on June 13, 1902, in Norfolk, Virginia.
In 1979 the Improved Elks had approximately 450,000 members. In the early 21st century, they have 500,000 members in 1500 lodges around the world. Like other fraternal associations in the United States, both black and white, the Improved Elks have been dealing with declining membership as older members die. Younger people face a different world, and seem less inclined to join such associations, sometimes preferring explicitly political or professional associations related to work.
Just like the BPOE, the Improved Elks have kept much of their original ritual intact.
Benefits and philanthropy
The Improved Elks in the United States sponsor scholarship programs, youth summer computer literacy camps, help for children with special needs, and extensive community service activities.
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- Shining Star Lodge of Stamford
- Paul Lawrence Dunbar Lodge No. 106 of Wilmington
District of Columbia
- Columbia Lodge No. 85 of Washington, D.C.
- Imperial Lodge No. 127 of New York City
- Brooklyn Lodge No. 32
- Industry Lodge No. 889 of New York City
- Christopher Perry Lodge No. 965 of Philadelphia
- Leonard C. Irvin Lodge No. 994 Philadelphia
- Edward W. Henry Lodge No. 1235 of Philadelphia
- O.V. Catto Lodge No. 20 of Philadelphia
- Rest of state
- John A. Watts Lodge No. 224 of Chester
- B.F. Howard Lodge No. 580 of Media
- John F. Moreland Lodge No. 801 of Monaca
- Maple View Lodge No. 780 of Elizabeth
- North Side Lodge No. 124 of Pittsburgh
- Lawrence Lodge #18 of New Castle
- Berks Lodge No. 47 Reading
- Unity Lodge No. 71 of Harrisburg
- Conestoga Lodge No. 140 of Lancaster
- Capt. Levi M. Hood Lodge No. 159 of West Chester
- Cyrene Lodge No. 169 of Steelton
- Arandale Lodge No. 184 of Altoona
- Canon Lodge No. 186 of Canonsburg
- Twin City Lodge No. 187 of Farrell
- Clinton J. Lewis Lodge No. 201 of Bristol
- Edgar A. Still Lodge No. 207 of Williamsport
- Booker T. Washington Lodge No. 218 of McKeesport
- Brighton Pioneer Lodge No. 219 of Beaver Falls
- Valley Lodge No. 294 of New Kensington
- Gem City Lodge No. 328 of Erie
- Flood City Lodge No. 371 of Johnstown
- Elmwood Lodge No. 438 of Norristown
- Monroe Lodge No. 513 of Stroudsburg
- Okay Lodge No. 697 of Monessen
- William E. Burrell Lodge No. 737 of North Hills
- Twin County Lodge No. 838 of Vandergrift
- Montgomery Lodge No. 1271 of Pottstown
- Bethal Lodge No. 1284 Bethlehem
- "Our Brief History", IBPOEW official website
- Michelle O'Donnell, "Black Elks Honor Rituals as Membership Dwindles", New York Times, 20 September 2004; accessed 17 May 2017
- Schmidt, Alvin J. Fraternal Organizations, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980, pp. 107-8
- Preuss, Arthur A Dictionary of Secret and other Societies, St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1924; republished Detroit: Gale Reference Company, 1966; p.206
- Schmidt (1980), p.108
- Venus Green, "Not your average fraternal organization: the IBPOEW and labor activism, 1935–1950", Labor History, Volume 53, 2012 - Issue 4, pp.471-494, Taylor and Francis Online; accessed 17 May 2017
- Maliskas, Ed. John Brown to James Brown - The Little Farm Where Liberty Budded, Blossomed, and Boogied, Hagerstown, MD: Hamilton Run Press, 2016
- Schmidt (1980), p. 107
- Preuss p.179
- "Elks Open New Home Sunday," by W. Rollo Wilson, The Pittsburgh Courier, August 9, 1930, pg. 8 (retrieved September 22, 2017, via newspapers.com at www
.newspapers .com /image /40068447 /)
- Green, Venus, “Not Your Average Fraternal Organization: The IBPOEW and Labor Activism, 1935–1950,” Labor History, 53 (Nov. 2012), 471–94.
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- List of African-American Greek and fraternal organizations
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