“Cellulose nitrate negative, 1914, showing 25 African American men, members of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, Lodge No. 3211, sitting and standing in 2 rows on the sidewalk and street edge in front of a building with the sign, I.O.O.F., in Tacoma, WA. In the center of the group, the ceremonial lodge banner is displayed. Most members wear ceremonial hats, aprons, and collars, with the insignia and rank abbreviations visible on the collars. Four men hold ceremonial staffs, and one holds a fraternal sword upright in his hand. One seated man holds a cane. Marvin D. Boland, photographer.”
This is the caption accompanying this panoramic portrait from the archives of the Washington State Historical Society. When we first found this photo and shared it on social media in 2021, that was about all the information we had. One of the great things about this city, though, is that nothing stays a mystery forever.
Shortly after we shared the photo we got an email from a man named Tim Olsen. Tim shared some knowledge about the Odd Fellows and the state of Tacoma’s fraternal organizations around that time. He explained how many of the most popular fraternal organizations of the day—including the Elks, Odd Fellows, and Masons—did not allow Black members. So Black folks simply made their own. The history of how these came to be is a whole story on its own and well worth researching if you’re interested.
As American-born whites and immigrants formed increasing numbers of voluntary associations, so did African Americans. Black fraternalism began with Freemasonry in the late eighteenth century and spread among free blacks during the 1800s. By the late nineteenth century, black secret societies included not only the parallel Euro-American Elks, Masons, Odd Fellows, and Knights of Pythias, but also a variety of independent orders, including the United Brothers of Friendship and Sisters of the Mysterious Ten, the Independent Order of St. Luke, and the Grand United Order of True Reformers. Some of the national societies had quite large memberships by the early twentieth century: Odd Fellows (304,000), Pythians (250,000), Masons (150,000), and the Elks (70,000) (Fahey 1994: 10).
The photo is impressive just on its own but the context in which it was taken gives it a much deeper meaning. In 1914, this country was only 49 years out of the Civil War. A lot of the men pictured here would’ve remembered a time before then. Some may have fought in the war. Some may have been born into slavery. The youngest ones shown here may have lived into the 21st century.
This photo was taken at a time when The Clansman visited Tacoma theaters as a play and later as the adapted film, The Birth of a Nation, both portraying the Ku Klux Klan as noble and heroic. This was a time when minstrel shows were commonplace in schools and clubs throughout Tacoma as well as other fraternal organizations. These pro-Confederate sentiments may not have manifested in the same ways as they did in The South but were nonetheless alive and well in the Pacific Northwest.
Regardless of the relative security of their lives here in Tacoma, the fact that these 25 men posed for a photo in their finest regalia on a popular thoroughfare anywhere in the US was a notable thing. It would have been absolutely unheard of in many parts of the country.
It’s likely that most of these gentlemen worked for the Northern Pacific or Great Northern railroads as dinner car chefs, night porters or small businessmen operating barber shops and newsstands at Union Station or the Tacoma Hotel. Others were merchants, shopkeepers along the busy K Street line, stevedores or employees of the many mills and manufacturing plants on the industrial tide flats. Tacoma was thriving in 1914 and the affluence of these members reflects the times.
Tim Olsen also identified the man sitting directly in front of the large flag as Henry Asberry, husband of the venerable Nettie Asberry, a staunch civil rights advocate and vocal opponent to the previously mentioned film being shown in Tacoma. Henry worked as a barber at the Tacoma Hotel for 47 years trimming and shaving many notable visitors to Tacoma including then Vice President Calvin Coolidge and Mark Twain. Mark Twain was reportedly a much more enjoyable customer. The initials on his collar, NG, indicate Henry’s rank as Noble Grand. More info about the Asberrys and the preservation of their former home can be found here.
The stories of the other men shown in the photograph are, as far as I know, currently unknown. One mystery we did solve, though, was the location of this photo. About nine months after Tim Olsen originally contacted us, he wrote back saying he had figured out where the building was. Ironically, it was one of the buildings we had both looked at and previously ruled out. As it turns out, we were just looking at the wrong side.
The photo was taken at 711 Commerce Street (left), the opposite upstairs side of the Odd Fellows Temple at 712 ½ Pacific Ave (right). The more well known Odd Fellows Temple on Pacific was coincidentally two doors down from the modern day home of Odd Otter Brewing. Tim noticed that the cast iron plinths at the 712 ½ building were identical to the ones shown in the background of the group portrait but the rest of the architecture didn’t match up. However, the same plinths and column details can still be found on the uphill side of that building and they line up perfectly.
The building directly next to the Odd Fellows Temple later housed the USO #2 for Black service members who, in spite of fighting alongside their white counterparts in WWII, still served in a segregated military until 1948. The third floor of the building was eventually removed due to earthquake damage and looks significantly different at various points in time. For those interested in drawing a line between Tacoma’s past and present, though, the connections are still clear enough.
We spent a lot of long hours researching all the bits of this story. Time we couldn’t have afforded without help from local businesses and organizations. Big thanks to Pacific Lutheran University and South Sound Together for their support of Grit City Magazine.