Independent Order of St. Luke

The Independent Order of St. Luke entered the ranks of the major fraternal societies in the twentieth century. Open to both male and female members, it was unique in having a woman as leader and becoming identified with women. The first St. Luke organization was founded by ex-slave Mary Prout as a womenís mutual insurance society in Baltimore in 1867. It provided for the care of the ill and the burial of the dead. Renamed the Grand United Order of St. Luke, it then admitted men. Almost immediately, the Virginian lodges broke away from the Independent Order of St. Luke, which then spread to other states. From 1869 to 1899, the Virginia St. Luke society was dominated by its secretary, William M.T.Forrester. He abandoned it when the order seemed on the verge of collapse and chose to identify himself instead with the Odd Fellows. His successor at the St. Lukes, Maggie Lena Walker (c. 1867Ė1934) of Richmond, turned a minor society into one of the best-known African American fraternal organizations of the first half of the twentieth century. As the daughter of a widowed washerwoman, she had been born, not with a silver spoon in her mouth, but, as she put it, "with a clothes basket almost upon my head."

Walker had joined the Independent Order of St. Luke when she was fourteen. Although she quickly occupied minor offices, her career in the order is best dated from her marriage in 1886, which, under the regulations of the time, forced her resignation as a schoolteacher. By 1889, she headed a "council," the name used for St. Luke lodges. She soon was appointed a national deputy, organizing new councils in Virginia and West Virginia. In 1895, she proposed the formation of a juvenile department, an initiative that gave St. Luke women a new status. Each local council was directed to create a juvenile "circle," headed by a woman bearing the title of "matron." Walker was elected grand matron in charge of a new council of matrons. In 1897, she was elected secretary of the endowment, or insurance, department.

In 1899, when Forrester withdrew, Walker became right worthy grand secretary, a post that she retained until her death in 1934. In 1899, the order had only fifty-seven chapters with 1,080 members. The treasury that Walker inherited contained $31.61 cash, offset by $400 in debts. At first, Walker was paid $100 per year, a third of her predecessorís salary.

At least through the mid-1920s, the Walker years would be ones of almost uninterrupted successes. During the Walker era, women made up at least half of the senior St. Luke officials, something that no other society that admitted men could match. In Walkerís first year, membership grew to 3,830 financial members in eighty-nine councils, figures supplemented by 1,205 children in thirty-five circles. In 1902, she created a printing department and a newspaper, the St. Luke Herald. By the mid-1920s, it claimed six thousand subscribers. Outside the order, she organized a joint-stock association that purchased property in Richmond and erected a three-story building that served as the orderís headquarters. In 1903, she started the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. It began with deposits of $8,000, which rose by the mid-1920s to nearly $500,000 and provided mortgages that empowered many black families to purchase homes. Probably Walker was the first woman bank president in the country other than a few in the western states who had inherited the job in a family bank. In 1904, she started a regalia and supply department. In a rare failure, a department store called the St. Luke Emporium, organized by twenty-two St. Luke women in 1905, was forced to close at the beginning of 1912. It had been undermined by the systematic obstruction mounted by white merchants. Walker had hoped, among other things, that the Emporium would provide employment for black women. When the failure of another Richmond black fraternal society bank in 1910, that of the True Reformers, persuaded the state of Virginia to require that fraternal societies and financial institutions be separate, the St. Luke bank became officially independent of the order. The St. Lukes remained the principal depositor. The True Reformer scandal also induced the St. Luke order to install a new bookkeeping system in 1911. Increased government inspection made Walker joke that the "only secret we have left is our password." It was nervous insurance regulators that forced the closure of the Emporium. In 1929, the St. Luke bank merged with other black Richmond banks, with Walker as chairman of the board.

The membership and finances of the St. Luke order peaked in the 1920s, when at least 20 percent of Richmondís black adults were members of the order. The Negro Year Book of 1921Ė1922 credited the order with 82,687 members. By the mid-1920s, the membership appears to have been more than 100,000. By the end of 1925, there was more than $8 million of St. Luke insurance in force in more than twenty states. The order employed fifty-five clerks in the home office, most of them women, and 145 field-workers. In 1927, the order created an educational loan fund. After years of decline, the Independent Order of St. Luke ceased to exist in the late 1980s.

Initiation Ritual


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