23 October 2006

The Cradle of Black Capitalism

Born into slavery in Habersham, Georgia on October 20th, 1849, William Washington Browne would one day become one of the most influential and successful entrepreneurs in America. Though relatively unknown, his Christian legacy lives on today in what should be known as “The Cradle of Black Capitalism” – ironically, in the old Confederate Capitol of Richmond, Virginia. Browne’s early childhood was spent working as a house servant in Georgia. He became good friends with the young son of his master. Working as a house servant and becoming good friends with the white boy gave the young Browne some insights into the economic workings of 19th century America—insights that would later serve him well.

After his first owner died, Browne was sold to a man in Tennessee. Separated from his family, William Browne learned how to adapt to unfamiliar surroundings. This experience, though hard for the young man, would steel his resolve to make something of his life. As is so often the case, God uses unjust and difficult trials to make us strong so that we may better serve Him. William Browne would use his strength to become a dedicated servant of his God and of his race.

When Federal forces marched into Memphis during the War Between the States, Browne was sent south to Mississippi. From there he escaped and sought refuge among the Union army. Dismayed to learn that escaped slaves were being surrendered by the Federals, he made his way to Cairo, Illinois and found employment in a saloon. Browne detested what he saw in the saloon; men and women lowered to base conduct by the influence of alcohol. Through this providential encounter, Browne acquired a life-long hatred of liquor that would one day lead him to become involved in the temperance movement. The desire to see his race lift themselves from liquor’s own form of slavery and poverty would also motivate him to improve his race’s economic standing. Browne left the saloon and enlisted as a private in the Union Army at the age of fifteen. He would serve in the Army until 1866. After working as a farmhand after the war, Browne, now a free young man of twenty, returned to Georgia to see his mother. There, after hearing several sermons by a fire and brimstone preacher, Browne discovered another kind of freedom— the freedom of salvation in Christ. Browne’s experience with God would prove to be of great benefit to the many individuals that would cross his path. But that benefit would be not only in the spiritual realm, but in the economic as well.

After studying briefly for the ministry in Atlanta, Browne earned his living as a school teacher first in Georgia, then in Alabama. There Browne met and married Mary Graham in 1873 and three years later was ordained as a Methodist minister. Browne’s disdain for alcohol and what it was doing to his people prompted his involvement in the growing temperance movement. According to a 1998 article by Anita Willis, “He [Browne] worried that many Alabama blacks were disenfranchised because they had been convicted for drunkenness and also wasted money that poor people could not afford. ‘All the masses of our Race own is [a grave of] three by six feet of earth.’” With God’s help, Browne was going to make sure that changed. Browne wanted blacks to join the Good Templars, an influential temperance organization. But the group resisted the idea that blacks should form their own lodges. So Browne moved to Richmond, Virginia and established the Order of True Reformers.

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 America at the turn of the 20th century.” The organization’s goals were multi-faceted as stated in their documents:

· 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 Richmond, Browne could boast of branches in twenty states by 1894.

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 Commonwealth of Virginia to open a bank. Known as “The Savings Bank of the United Order of True Reformers,” it became the first bank chartered by African Americans in America and by 1907 had deposits of one million dollars. Browne’s leadership abilities and faith enabled the Reformers to grow quite an impressive business empire which eventually included “a weekly newspaper, an industrial and mercantile division, a hotel, a home for the elderly, and real estate in several states. The organization would grow to have tens of thousands of members.” The group also owned three farms and fifteen meeting halls. The Reformers’ enterprises were first rate and Booker T. Washington once remarked that The Hotel Reformer was “one of the finest African-American hotels in the South.” The hotel was in Richmond and could house one hundred guests.

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 United States, that the black man could succeed in America and even overcome prejudices and injustice in a quest for spiritual and economic freedom. His life story is worthy of the study of every business professional and student in America.

Sources:

Black America SeriesRichmond, Virginia by Elvatrice Parker Belsches, Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, SC, 2002.
The Official History of Freemasonry Among Colored People in North America, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.
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.

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