Tuesday, August 27, 2013

American Woodmen - A Black Benevolent Society

Image of headstone taken at Fr. Dickson's Cemetery, St. Louis Missouri

Most of us who enjoy visiting cemeteries, recognize their headstones. They are beautiful and truly unique, many shaped like logs, or tree trunks and are elaborate in their design and always catch the attention of visitors to many burial grounds. Those belong to the Woodmen of the World. 

But there is another organization worth exploring---It was also a Benevolent society with death benefits--The American Woodmen. This was a Black organization.

The history of this group is most interesting. It actually began as a white organization, not unlike the Woodmen of the World. However by 1910 this became an all African American fraternal society. Laurence Lightner was one of the major leaders of the American Woodmen, and held his position for over 20 years.

Community service and family oriented values were among their areas of focus. And of course there were the benefits paid to the families of deceased members, while also emphasizing philanthropy, and help to others for all members.

Their chapter groups were often referred to as Camps, and the greater body was known as the Supreme Camp of the American Woodmen. During the early 20th century years, the group was well known for paying benefits efficiently and also took note of their success in raising funds. An interesting article in the Kansas City Sun from 1919 addressed the efficiency of the American Woodmen.

The American Woodment also were among the more generous of the benevolent societies as they paid not only death benefits, but they offered a number of programs for members. This may have contributed to their longevity.  An advertisement from The Kansas City Star in a 1917 edition reflected the many offerings to their members. Their benefits included: death benefits, sick benefits, accident benefits, old age annuity and more.

Source: Advertisement for American Woodmen
Source: Kansas City Star, March 3, 1917 Page 2

The latter half of the 20th century saw many changes in the control of the life insurance function of the Woodmen, and many efforts were made to control the assets of the American Woodmen insurance funds that exceeded $10 million dollars. In 1994 the group finally merged with the Woodmen of the World.

Earlier this year, when visiting Ft. Dickson's cemetery in St. Louis, it was quite a surprise to see a headstone reflecting the American Woodmen. This is an historically black cemetery and the log style stone immediately caught my attention. It was only the second such stone reflecting the American Woodmen that I have seen, and I captured a photo of the stone at that time. (see image at top of this article)

It is evident that the American Woodmen had a cadre of focused dedicated people for decades, as this was one of the few societies that did not fold during the years of the great depression. Their legacy is an impressive one, and this is an organization that deserves further study as one explores the history of the Black Benevolent Societies.


Anonymous said...

Howard University's Morland Spingarn Research Center holds many, if not all, of the Woodmen of America materials. My great great grandfather was a member and was buried in OKlahoma with one of the unique headstones

Unknown said...

a family member of mine found a very old what I'm assuming is a flyer for a man named E.D. Caldwell Supervising Deputy of the American Woodmen for the State of Alabama.Is there a list of members we are trying to find out if this man is a member of our family?

Unknown said...

I found a gold lapel pin while metal detecting in a hay field where an African American school was located. the pin has the letters"aw' with an eagle over them and flags on both sides could this be a pin from the American woodmen? this was found around hope Arkansas. thank you

Anonymous said...

I found a Walker Evans photo from Montgomery Alabama of something called "Todd's Gun Store" and in the photo to the left is a door with the shingle hanging over it that says "Office of American Woodmen." Just in case anyone is looking for images of this group.

Unknown said...

My great-great grandmother was an American Woodmen. I have her blue hat with the white tassel, brown wood log with the hatchet and red A and W.