WAYNE REILLY

Odd Fellows convention a century ago highlighted African Americans in Bangor

Posted Aug. 05, 2012, at 11:36 a.m.
Wayne Reilly
Wayne Reilly

Early on the afternoon of Thursday, Aug. 8, 1912, a century ago this week, a group of African-American men wearing dress suits and silk hats lined up for a parade in Bangor’s East Market Square, where city hall is currently located. Accompanied by the Brewer Band playing Sousa marches and led by a squad of Bangor policemen, they marched uptown to Maplewood Park (Bass Park today) by way of Exchange and Washington streets, Broadway, State and Main streets, pausing briefly in front of the Bangor House for a parade review.

A Civil Rights protest? A Black Power demonstration? Hardly, at least in the modern sense of those words. Such events were still decades away, although one can’t help but imagine today that this show of black pride was meant to demonstrate that African Americans deserved to be treated more respectfully. While Bangor schools and churches were integrated, and blacks lived throughout the city, they were discriminated against in employment and social relations by whites. The newspapers regularly featured racist advertisements, news and commentary, while minstrel shows and other blackface routines were popular entertainment fare.

The parade that August day in 1912 marked the annual New England convention of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization for black men (a women’s auxiliary was named The Household of Ruth). Members of 21 lodges had come from as far away as New Bedford, Mass., to hold their convention in Bangor, where the first chapter of the black fraternal organization in Maine had recently been organized.

Bangor’s more than 200 black residents, a tiny fraction of the city’s total population, had formed a variety of social organizations over the years. They seldom received publicity in the newspapers any more than did organizations started by the immigrant groups that were coming into the city in large numbers at this time. Because this was a fraternal organization, however, of the type popular among whites of the era, “the colored Odd fellows,” received a fair amount of press.

An outgrowth of another group for African American men named the Queen City Club, the Odd Fellows lodge’s creation was announced in the Bangor Daily Commercial on Aug. 14, 1911.

“The lodge is the first secret organization of any description to be organized in Bangor or in any other place in Maine, composed exclusively of colored men,” said the newspaper. “It starts with a membership of nearly 50 on its charter list and is destined to [be an] influence for good in the community, say its founders.” The charter list included members of such prominent families in the black community as Bernard, Palmer, Geary, Talbot, Johnson, Dymond and Wilson. A later newspaper piece revised membership downward to 25.

The convention for that summer was announced in November, and in February members of the lodge held what was apparently a fundraiser — described in a Commercial headline on Feb. 15, 1912 as “a Real Southern Cake Walk and a Vaudeville Entertainment at City Hall … .”

A one-act play called “A Colored Suffragette” with a cast of 15 was performed along with “Southern melodies” sung by a large number of members of the local black community. The hit of the evening, however, was a “real cake walk.” My dictionary describes a cake walk as “a nineteenth century entertainment among African Americans in which walkers performing the most accomplished or amusing steps won cakes.” The winners of an “immense cake” that evening in Bangor were A. R. Oree and Mabel Hudlin.

The convention in August started with a business meeting on Wednesday, the seventh, and the parade and other entertainment on Thursday. The Commercial called it “one of the largest fraternal affairs of the season,” taking the unusual step of treating the event equally, as did the Bangor Daily News, with white convocations of the same type.

A baseball game was held after the parade at Maplewood Park. The Bangor lodge defeated a team from Cambridge, Mass., 14-11.

“The game was chiefly remarkable for the unmerciful manner in which the players of both teams whanged the delivery of the opposing pitcher — remarkable for that and for the fact that Umpire James Epps of Cambridge, who is a past district grand master of the order, was attired in a silk hat and a frock coat. It isn’t often that umpires at Maplewood are as resplendent,” commented the Commercial.

That night a banquet was held at City Hall. Milton Geary, who would go on to become Maine’s only black lawyer, introduced Mayor Charles Mullen, who delivered a few words of welcome. Afterwards, club members danced almost until dawn to the music of Hall’s Orchestra.

Less than a decade after the Odd Fellows chapter was founded, Bangor blacks formed a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, according to Maureen Elgersman Lee, in her book “Black Bangor.” Some of its members, like Milton Geary, were the same as those who joined the Odd Fellows.

At about the same time the Ku Klux Klan was experiencing an upsurge in popularity in Maine and many other states. The long-ago parade and convention of the Black Odd Fellows in Bangor — seen as so significant in the newspapers in 1912 — would seem like a nostalgic trifle in light of what was about to be unleashed in the nation in the decades ahead.

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday. An illustrated collection, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

 

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