Born into slavery in
After his first owner died, Browne was sold to a man in
When Federal forces marched into
After studying briefly for the ministry in
While Browne was, in the best sense of the word, a true “reformer,” he was also a realist. Browne was a product of the Reconstruction and Post-Reconstruction period in the South and, while promoting black progress, he maintained an “innate caution” towards whites. As Anita Willis describes Browne, “He tried to appease the whites who controlled government and business because he knew he needed sympathetic white judges, legislators, and bankers.” Willis also noted that, “Browne preached a gospel of money, morality, education and family, racial solidarity and self-help. While whites were quarreling over the Negro problem, Browne urged his fellow blacks, ‘Let us work it out ourselves.’"
From the Order of True Reformers would spring Browne’s financial self-help organization, The Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers (GFUOTR). Author Elvatrice Parker Belsches writes that, “This benevolent society, which began as a temperance society, grew to become one of the largest African-American business enterprises in
· To unite fraternally all colored persons of sound bodily health and good moral character, and who are socially and otherwise acceptable to each other. And to give all moral and material aid in its power to its members and those dependent upon them.
· To educate its members socially, morally and intellectually.
· To establish a fund for the relief of sick and distressed members, or for such other purposes as the Association may determine.
· To establish a benefit fund, from which on satisfactory evidence of the death of a member, who has compiled a sum with all its lawful requirements, a sum not exceeding five thousand dollars shall be paid to the family, heirs, blood relatives, affianced husband, affianced wife, or to persons dependent upon aid member as the member may direct.
· To secure for its members such other advantage as are, from time to time, designated by the Constitution and Laws of the Association.
This organization, under Browne’s influence, was instrumental in promoting black self-reliance in the South. Browne’s faith was the motivating factor as he was fully aware that God’s laws of sowing and reaping applied to all races, not just whites. He knew that God would bless hard work, thrift, and patience and he made sure these principles were foremost in the organization’s mission.
The organization was made up of “fountains” (chapters or lodges). Why fountains? The Reformers explained: “A fountain is always running; it sends forth its waters, pure and clear at all times. A fountain cleanses itself, but a pond becomes stale and stagnant, and has to be ditched off or it will make everyone sick who lives near or by it.” These “fountains”, through the sacrifices of their members, would combine their money and purchase land. This voluntary pooling of assets was a way that poor blacks could multiply their meager resources into increased purchasing power. Browne knew that there was strength in their numbers and applied this powerful economic tool to help fellow blacks pull themselves up by their bootstraps: “Let us stop playing, trifling and wasting our time and talents, and scattering our little mites to the four winds of the earth, and let us unite ourselves in a solid band.” While the national headquarters was located in
In 1885, a department was formed to teach and care for children. Known as the Rosebud Department, their mission was to: “…discipline the young, to train them to practice thrift and economy, and to give lessons early in the business methods of life, to establish a fund for the relief of sick members and a mortuary fund from which, on satisfactory proof of death, of a benefited member a sum not exceeding thirty-seven dollars shall be paid to parents or guardians.” The Rosebud Department and their “mortuary fund” would eventually lead to the formation of a bank and an insurance association.
In March of 1888, the GFUOTR was granted a charter from the
Though the bank would fail in 1910 (due to mismanagement after Browne’s death in 1897), the GFUOTR continued operation as a fraternal order and insurance operation until it folded during the Great Depression. But by then, the organization that Browne had started had become “a model for banking and insurance enterprises throughout the South.” Inspired by a hatred for alcohol and a love for Christ, the Reverend William Washington Browne had shown his race, along with the rest of the
The Official History of Freemasonry Among Colored People in North America,
Article by Anita Willis, The Founder of the Order of True Reformers: The Story of William Washington Browne, 1998-1999.
Twenty-five Years History of the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers, by W. P. Burrell and D. E. Johnson Sr., 1909.