William Dorsey's Philadelphia and Ours: On the Past and Future of the Black City in America

By Roger Lane | Go to book overview

Chapter 10
Organization and Social Class

Few things about late- 19th-century black Philadelphia are more striking than the richness of its web of clubs, organizations, and associations, all of them, like politics, religion, and color itself serving at the same time to divide and unite the larger community. There were organizations for every purpose: fellowship and mutual insurance, charity and prestige, education and the celebration of common origins and experience. Given a population of only a few tens of thousands, collectively they represented a truly astonishing amount of energy and sometimes expense.

Many of these groups competed for members; some were designed to set people apart from others, to draw lines based on social class, place of birth, or other differences. But it was hard in practice to establish a stable class system in a community so poor. The income difference between top and bottom was always narrow, and the many clubs and associations themselves often demanded a conspicuous consumption that combined with the uncertainties of economic life to make personal security hard to win and even harder to transmit across the generations. And despite efforts to reinforce class lines through selective association, the need to unite for religious, political, and other purposes prevented any group of Afro-Americans from truly isolating themselves from the rest.

The biggest of Afro-American secular organizations in Philadelphia were "secret" fraternal orders, Masons, Odd Fellows, and others. Even more than other associations these all had several functions, economic and social, moral and religious. All competed to attract members and attention in ways that strictly limited their secrecy. At the same time they all shared much the same historical ancestry, structure, aims, problems, and many of the same members, so that they were in practice not much more competitive than secret.

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