The Grand United Order of True Reformers began in 1873 in Alabama and Kentucky as a fraternal society for African Americans. It was managed, to a large extent, by deputies of the all-white, pro-temperance organization the Independent Order of Good Templars. William Washington Browne, an African American who spoke passionately against "king alcohol," tried to apply for formal membership to the Good Templars but was denied because of his race. When the Good Templars agreed to foster a separate all-black affiliate group called the United Order of True Reformers, Browne accepted this level of support. Although Browne did not actually found the True Reformers, he eventually transformed the order into a mutual benefit association and broadened the organization's membership by traveling throughout the South building smaller chapters—or "sub-fountains"—while preaching temperance. From Browne's perspective, alcohol and drunkenness were the primary causes for the disproportionate numbers of blacks in penitentiaries and, because convicts were denied the right to vote, the main reasons that so much of the black community had been disfranchised. During his address to the order on April 8, 1895, Browne recounted that by 1879, the work of the True Reformers had helped reduce the number of blacks condemned to work on the chain gang from five thousand convictions per year to only five hundred.
While more fountains of the True Reformers and other temperance societies came into existence during this time, the True Reformers went through a period of bitter infighting caused primarily by Browne's desire to change the organization's course and focus. As Reconstruction (1865–1877) ended and the era of Jim Crow began, Browne came to believe that the organization was adequately supporting the commercial and educational needs of poor blacks. While the federal government had provided some assistance through the Freedmen's Bureau, that agency's resources were not sufficient, and Browne's ambition—pursued via the Grand Fountain—was to create an all–African American economy of goods and services, independent of government assistance.
Meanwhile, Virginia's branch of True Reformers, which Browne helped to establish in 1875, was undergoing its own transformations. With little local leadership behind it, Virginia's branch was in decline. Attracted to Browne's progressive ideas for the order and desiring rejuvenation, a committee of True Reformers from Richmond, including W. H. L. Combs, Junius T. Brown, and Grand Worthy Master J. O. Vaughn, invited Browne to Virginia in December 1880.
The order's new purpose and message helped the organization grow and by 1892 it had expanded to 765 chapters with more than 40,000 members nationwide. To make the insurance component of the True Reformers work, Browne proposed that members would have to buy death-benefit certificates for $1.50. As a benefit, the order would pay the member's heirs $100, and, as more fountains were established, this benefit would continue to rise. The death benefit, however, would eventually be lowered to $50, because anything higher could not be sustained. Believing that Browne was more focused on his economic ventures than the original charitable purposes of the organization, a faction of the order obtained a charter under the name of the Supreme Fountain Grand United Order of True Reformers on January 18, 1884, to focus on the order's original purpose: "to take care of its sick and destitute members, to bury its dead, to support the widows and orphan children of deceased members, [and] to encourage and promote good morals and knowledge among its members and their families."
With the True Reformers now effectively split—one group meeting the charitable needs of the community and the other building up the community economically—Browne was better able to concentrate on his entrepreneurial plans for the organization. Between 1883 and 1885 the order grew from nine to fifty-two fountains. This rapid growth permitted the order to change from charging a one-time premium for its members to a graduated system that considered the age of its members when calculating premiums. This new system helped the order for the first time become profitable.
The order also created the Rosebud Nursery in 1885, which extended the ideals of thrift, self-reliance, and temperance to children of the order. Like their older counterparts, these younger members paid monthly dues to receive sickness and burial insurance. The name of this new department, "Rosebud," reflected Browne's belief that the future life, hope, and health of the order and of the black race rested in children. By 1907 more than thirty thousand children were members of the order.
While the True Reformers continued to grow financially and in membership, it also expanded geographically. In the same year that the Rosebud Nursery was created, Browne helped to start a fountain in Charlotte County in Southside Virginia. As the new fountain accrued insurance premiums, its members deposited the funds with a local white storekeeper to keep the money safe before they sent it to the Grand Fountain in Richmond. Racial tensions in Charlotte County were high, in part due to the lynching of Richard Walker in May of 1886. Fearful of an organized black community, the storekeeper informed other white citizens about the financial deposits and the whites demanded that the fountain disband. Although angered by the incident, Browne saw an opportunity to safeguard the money of black members and investors: he would build a bank.
The True Reformers looked for ways to invest in activities and industries that spread their message of economic uplift. In 1893 the order began publishing a bimonthly newspaper, the Reformer, which by 1900 was a weekly publication with a circulation of 8,000. In 1898 the order incorporated the Old Folk's Home, a 634-acre residential facility on a farm outside of Richmond for the elderly where occupants were cared for even if they were not members of the organization. And in December 1899, the order chartered the Reformers Mercantile and Industrial Association, which, according to the scholar James D. Watkinson, "merely formalized and brought under one roof the workings of the real estate department, the Reformer offices and printing department" and the order's other businesses. The association allowed the order to open stores that, in addition to selling produce from its farms, also sold groceries, farm implements, and goods manufactured by the group's members. These ventures helped establish the True Reformers as a model of self-sufficiency for other organizations. Maggie Lena Walker emulated the order in her efforts to resuscitate the near-bankrupt Order of St. Luke, another African American fraternal organization based in Richmond.
Scandal and Decline
The business network created by the True Reformers fell apart in 1910. In that year it was discovered that the cashier of the Reformers Savings Bank had embezzled more than $50,000 from member deposits. This scandal became public at the same time that several businesses defaulted on a series of large unsecured loans, leaving the True Reformers unable to pay insurance claims. The Virginia State Corporation Commission closed the bank on October 20, 1910, leading to the collapse of most of the True Reformers other ventures largely because they were all tied to the bank as their financial core.
A shell of what it once was, the order continued to serve as a fraternal organization and provide insurance benefits until 1934 when, according to Watkinson, its name disappeared from the Virginia State Corporation Commission's records. In 1989, the True Reformer building in Washington, D.C., was placed on the National Historic Register.
1873 - The Grand United Order of True Reformers begins in Alabama and Kentucky as a fraternal society for African Americans managed, to a large extent, by deputies of the all-white, pro-temperance organization the Independent Order of Good Templars.
1875 - William Washington Browne helps to establish a branch of the United Order of True Reformers in Virginia.
December 26, 1880 - William Washington Browne arrives in Richmond and meets with members of Virginia's United Order of True Reformers at the Orphan Asylum on the corner of St. Paul and Charity streets. Shortly after his arrival in Richmond he also serves for a time as pastor of the Leigh Street Methodist Episcopal Church.
January 11, 1881 - William Washington Browne founds and takes charge of the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers in Virginia.
January 18, 1884 - A faction of the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers obtains a charter under the name of the Supreme Fountain Grand United Order of True Reformers to focus on the order's original purpose of caring for the order's sick and destitute members.
1885 - The Rosebud Nursery, a department of the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers, is created to extend the ideals of thrift, self-reliance, and temperance to children of the order.
March 2, 1888 - The Savings Bank of the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers is created by an act of the Virginia General Assembly. The bank is the first black-owned, black-operated financial institution to be chartered in the United States.
April 3, 1889 - The Savings Bank of the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers becomes the second black bank to begin operations (the first is the Capitol Savings Bank of Washington, D.C., which opened on October 17, 1888).
1891 - The Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers constructs a multipurpose building at 604–608 North Second Street, which serves as a center for the organization's activities. It includes a bank, several business offices, three stores, four large meeting rooms, and a concert hall.
1893 - The Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers begins publishing a bimonthly newspaper, the Reformer, which by 1900 becomes a weekly publication with a circulation of eight thousand.
December 21, 1897 - William Washington Browne dies of cancer that originates in his arm.
1898 - The "Old Folk's Home," a 634-acre residential facility for the elderly, is incorporated by the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers.
December 1899 - The Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers charters the "Reformers Mercantile and Industrial Association," which consolidates the group's businesses and sells groceries, farm implements, and goods manufactured and produced by the order's members.
1902 - The Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers erects a five-story edifice designed by black architect John Lankford at 12th and U streets in Washington, D.C., known today as the True Reformer building.
October 20, 1910 - The Virginia State Corporation Commission closes the doors of the Savings Bank of the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers after a member is caught embezzling more than $50,000 from member deposits, and several businesses default on a series of large unsecured loans that the bank cannot pay.
1934 - The Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers no longer appears on the record books of the Virginia State Corporation Commission.
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First published: May 14, 2010 | Last modified: December 4, 2012