Grand Fountain, United Order of True Reformers
Photographic Composite, c. 1900
Introduction | Historical Context | Archival Context | The Photographs | Activities | Suggested Reading
The years following the Civil War were ones of both opportunity and limitation for African Americans. Although the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and the Fourteenth granted citizenship, it was not long before a new system of racial discrimination would emerge, one that came to be known as Jim Crow. In a society that denied them access to decent jobs and many commercial services, African Americans formed parallel economies in their own communities. It was in this context that many black fraternal organizations formed, creating social outlets for those seeking camaraderie as well as a sense of belonging in the face of a larger society that neglected them. Often these groups networked with each other. Over time, they grew to provide insurance benefits and business opportunities within the segregated society. Emphasizing self-help, these groups were instrumental in the development of a black middle class in many southern cities.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, millions of former slaves throughout the South found themselves without food, shelter, education, employment, and other necessities required to live free lives. Although the federal government provided assistance through the Freedmen's Bureau, that agency's resources were not sufficient to meet the needs of the black community, which increasingly relied on mutual-aid societies. These societies worked with fraternal organizations and black churches to create networks of businesses that served and employed African Americans who were left outside the mainstream economy. In Richmond, Virginia, the most important of these organizations was the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers (GFUOTR). The success of the True Reformers was closely tied to the efforts of its founder, William Washington Browne.
Born a slave in Georgia, William Washington Browne served in the Union Army during the Civil War. He later attended school in Wisconsin, and afterward returned to the South, working as a teacher, temperance advocate, and Methodist preacher. Motivated by what he viewed as the negative effects of alcohol on the black population, Browne initially sought a charter from The Grand Lodge of Good Templars, a white temperance society in Alabama. Rejecting association with a black man but sympathetic to his goals, the Good Templars granted Browne a charter under a different name—the United Order of True Reformers. Browne traveled throughout the Lower South establishing local chapters, called "sub-fountains," before creating a "Grand Fountain," which served as the national headquarters.
During his travels, Browne established a sub-fountain in Richmond. In 1880, he returned to Richmond to become Grand Worthy Master of the State of Virginia, and the Richmond sub-fountain became the Grand Fountain. At the time, commercial insurance companies charged African American customers higher rates than their white counterparts. This prompted many African Americans to seek coverage offered through fraternal organizations. Assuming complete control of the True Reformers, Browne introduced such a mutual-aid benefit plan to provide life insurance to members of the organization. Traditionally, insurance companies charged their customers the same premiums regardless of age. Browne introduced a series of graded assessments whereby those who joined the True Reformers later in life paid higher premiums than those who joined at an early age.
Browne also created a formula by which member death benefits increased as more sub-fountains were formed and the organization grew. This feature of the plan encouraged members to proselytize and convince others in the community to join the True Reformers, laying the foundations for what would turn into a black-owned-and-operated business empire. Under Browne's leadership, the True Reformers grew from 29 sub-fountains in 1884 to 765 by 1892.
As the organization grew, the True Reformers opened of the Savings Bank of the Grand Fountain in Richmond. Chartered by an act of the General Assembly, it was the first black-owned bank chartered in the United States. Through the bank, the True Reformers provided mortgage loans and other banking services that were difficult for African Americans to obtain. The bank opened in Browne's home on 3 April 1889. By 1891, he transferred operations to a newly constructed three-story building at 604–608 North Second Street, in the heart of Richmond's Jackson Ward. The new building included meeting rooms, offices, stores, and a large concert hall to host lectures and entertainment. Using the bank to provide financing, the organization began buying real estate and entering into other business ventures.
In 1893, the True Reformers started a bimonthly newspaper, The Reformer, which by 1900 had become a weekly publication with a circulation of more than 8,000. After four years of fund-raising, in 1897 the order purchased a farm outside of Richmond as the site for a future retirement home. In 1899 the True Reformers received a charter for the "Reformer's Mercantile and Industrial Association," which allowed them to sell groceries and other supplies at either wholesale or retail prices. In 1900, the Hotel Reformer opened for business.
With the death of William Washington Browne in 1897, the United Order of True Reformers was run by committee. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the True Reformers had established branches in twenty-four states and had paid out more than $1 million in death benefits.
The empire created by the True Reformers began to fall apart in 1910, following the discovery that a bank cashier had embezzled $50,000. At the same time, several businesses defaulted on large, unsecured loans, leaving the True Reformers unable to pay insurance claims. The Virginia State Corporation Commission closed the bank on 20 October 1910, leading to the collapse of most of the True Reformers' other ventures. The order continued to serve as a fraternal organization and provide insurance benefits until 1934.
Despite its inglorious end, for over thirty years the United Order of the True Reformers had operated as one of the largest and most successful black enterprises in the nation. In the midst of the Jim Crow era, the order provided employment and business opportunities to African Americans who would otherwise have been ignored. Serving as a focus for black social and economic life, the True Reformers helped cultivate much of the leadership in the African American community, thus leaving future generations indebted to them.
The Virginia Historical Society purchased this composite photograph in 1997. It was sold to the VHS by a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, attorney who described himself as "a collector and sometime dealer in early photographs." Believing that the United Order of True Reformers had a Richmond connection, the dealer wrote of his desire to "help this composite photograph 'return home.'"
Click on selected images to enlarge
This item is a composite photograph of various ventures associated with the Grand Fountain, United Order of True Reformers (GFUOTR). Included in the display are images of the True Reformers' bank, newspaper, "old folks home," and other service business endeavors. It was made at the Jefferson Fine Art Gallery in Richmond by photographer James C. Farley shortly after 1900. This image was mass produced to hang in sub-fountain offices and was also displayed at state and local expositions.
Activities: Teaching the Document
1. Look at the photographs. Make a list of all the services provided by the True Reformers.
2. Look closely at the images of the True Reformers. What messages are they trying to send by their appearance and activities?
3. What types of feelings may have been evoked in the white community when seeing black people fill the roles shown in the photographs? What effect could those same images have on an African American viewer?
4. Using the pictures, what observations can be made about the role of women in the True Reformers?
To see enlargements of all the pictures in the True Reformers collage, search the Virginia Historical Society museum and photograph collections online. Type "True Reformers" in the section labeled "Keywords" and click "search" to see the full set of images.
• Ann Field Alexander. Race Man: The Rise and Fall of the "Fighting Editor," John Mitchell, Jr.
• David M. Fahey. The Black Lodge in White America: "True Reformer" Browne and His Economic Strategy.
• Giles B. Jackson and Daniel Webster Davis. Industrial History of the Negro Race.
• Gertrude Marlowe. Right Worthy Grand Mission: Maggie Lena Walker and the Quest for Black Economic Empowerment.
• Peter Rachleff. Black Labor in the South: Richmond, Virginia, 1865–1890.
Standards of Learning
• VS.8b, VS.8c, USII.3b, USII.3c, USII.8a, VUS.8c