Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World

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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 United States. In the early 21st century, it has 500,000 members and 1500 lodges in the world.


The Order claims descent from the Free African Society, the first formal black society in America, founded in 1787 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as a mutual aid society by Absalom Jones and Richard Allen. That organization later resulted in the founding of the first African-American congregation in the Episcopal Church, headed by Jones, and the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent black denomination, by Allen.

the formation of the Improved BPOE 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. The latter was a Pullman porter who had been born into slavery. The men had met in another fraternal association and wanted to establish a chapter of Elks; the white organization refused them admission.[1] (Note: In 1972 the white-majority BPOE opened admission to African Americans and other minorities.)[2] Riggs had gained a copy of the BPOE ritual and received the first copyright for it, establishing their organization in September 1898.[3] 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 the African Americans' 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, with 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."[4] The decision was apparently ignored after the IBPOEW made a minor change in the letters on their seal.[5]

The IBPOEW founded a Civil Liberties department in 1926. It was active in opposing the segregation of schools in Gary, Indiana, the next year.[5] 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 also 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."[6] 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".[6] 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; this was a catalyst for 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.[7]


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.[5] 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.[8] They were organized by Emma Virginia Kelly on June 13, 1902, in Norfolk, Virginia.[1]

In 1923 the IBPOEW convention in Chicago was attended by 3,000 delegates. At that meeting J. Finley Wilson was re-elected "Grand Exalted Leader'.[9]


In 1979 the Improved Elks had approximately 450,000 members.[5] In the early 21st century, they have 500,000 members in 1500 lodges around the world.[1] 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,[2] 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.[5]

Benefits and philanthropy[edit]

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.[1]

Selected US lodges[edit]




District of Columbia


New Jersey

New York



  • Quaker City Elks Lodge No. 720, IBPOEW, Philadelphia, was founded in 1926. In 1945 it was the reportedly the second-largest African-American Elks lodge in the country. In 1930, the Lodge erected a home at 1943 Christian Street. [10]
  • 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


  • Peerless Princess Lodge No. 243 of Wichita
  • Midwest Lodge No. 1444 of Topeka


  1. ^ a b c d "Our Brief History", IBPOEW official website
  2. ^ a b Michelle O'Donnell, "Black Elks Honor Rituals as Membership Dwindles", New York Times, 20 September 2004; accessed 17 May 2017
  3. ^ Schmidt, Alvin J. Fraternal Organizations, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980, pp. 107-8
  4. ^ Preuss, Arthur. A Dictionary of Secret and other Societies, St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1924; republished Detroit: Gale Reference Company, 1966; p.206
  5. ^ a b c d e Schmidt (1980), p.108
  6. ^ a b 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
  7. ^ Maliskas, Ed. John Brown to James Brown - The Little Farm Where Liberty Budded, Blossomed, and Boogied, Hagerstown, MD: Hamilton Run Press, 2016
  8. ^ Schmidt (1980), p. 107
  9. ^ Preuss p.179
  10. ^ "Elks Open New Home Sunday," by W. Rollo Wilson, The Pittsburgh Courier, August 9, 1930, pg. 8 (retrieved September 22, 2017, via at

Further reading[edit]

  • Green, Venus, “Not Your Average Fraternal Organization: The IBPOEW and Labor Activism, 1935–1950,” Labor History, 53 (Nov. 2012), 471–94.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]