My 2009 book, The National PTA, Race, and Civic Engagement, 1897-1970, was an opportunity to explore the relationship between civil society and education, an area I believe is overlooked in the history of education. By writing this book, I learned that the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers, or black PTA, was only one association in a web of networks of black churches, organizations, and community groups.  When I completed it, I was left with questions about the constellation of black civic organizations and the ways they shaped schools as institutions, influenced the education of black youth and adults, and developed curricula within and outside of schools.  There were so many of them, and their membership overlapped to a great deal! The research in political science has well documented the preponderance of black and white civic associations in United States history and the ways that civil society has influenced legislation and allowed for citizens to take action. However, my research examines what political scientists overlook: the centrality of education and schooling to black civic organizations.

As I began my new research project, I kept wondering where to turn. There are hundreds of black civic organizations to investigate, some local and regional, but many national and federated, or modeled on the structure of the US government.  Some are independent, while others are the segregated counterparts of white organizations, as was the case with the National PTA.   African Americans established more organizations per capita than whites, given that they were barred from other forms of more formal political participation.  In the years following the American Civil War (1861-1865), dozens upon dozens of black civic organizations were founded for a variety of purposes: social, protest, improvement, business, professional, fraternal, civic, trade, and religious. Like white organizations, they brought together members of different socio-economic classes; unlike white associations, they were inclusive of women (in practice) and did not discriminate based on race (in theory).

Joining a civic organization afforded members networking opportunities: fellowship, literary and artistic inspiration, and educational advancement.  As Nina Mjagkij (2001), the editor of a compendium on black civic organizations, explains, “the associations created a racially autonomous world that shielded African Americans from racial abuse and humiliation, while enabling them to serve the needs of the black community with honor, dignity, and respect” (p. vii).  So now, I find that I am drawn to examining the role of black civic organizations in shaping schools and the curriculum, as well as how these associations operated as sites of teaching and learning for members and the wider community.  Civics and literacy instruction were of primary importance in these groups.

Since I had to begin somewhere, I decided to focus on a little-researched group of organizations: black fraternals.  You may detect a theme in my research.  I am intrigued by organizations that are perceived as more mundane and commonplace (such as the PTA), which raises questions about how their long-term work achieves results that are not writ large.  In contrast, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP), is a black—or mixed race, really—civic organization.  The NAACP is fairly well-studied by historians, because of its work with and support of landmark court cases, most notably the Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas, decision on May 17, 1954, which ended legal segregation in America’s public schools.  This organization, along with others, are well-researched and written about in the literature.

Black fraternal organizations, with such names as the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World, Oddfellows, Knights of Pythias, and Prince Hall Masons, are generally perceived as more conservative and mundane in the ways they worked to make change in civil society. These fraternal organizations were central to black political and social life.  Many were originally founded for entertainment and social purposes, and they embraced parades and pageants.  However, they quickly took on more vital economic functions, such as providing insurance benefits to members and paying for the cost of burying the deceased.  In this regard, black organizations provided important services to black communities.

In peeling away the layers—and not having to look very far—I am finding that education was central to the mission of black fraternal organizations.  Some, like the Grand United Order of Oddfellows, stated that education was central to its mission as it proclaimed at its founding “let it never be forgotten that the Oddfellow’s lodge is a read educational institution” (Brooks, 1902, p. 228). The Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World (IBPOEW) was enthusiastic in its implementation of various educational initiatives and activities, such as its scholarship program, oratory contest on blacks and the Constitution, and the creation of Education Week.  During Education Week, Elks members spoke about the importance of education at church services, visited schools and made home visits, and hosted an annual oratorical contest which awarded youth scholarships to attend college. The topic was the same each year: the Negro and the Constitution.  The first year of the scholarship award, $14,000 was raised.  By 1940, the Education Department of the black Elks reported that it had raised $350,000 over the years for the scholarship fund and various other educational initiatives.

There certainly is much more to be excavated in researching black fraternal organizations and other black civic organizations, regarding the ways that civil society intersected with education and schooling.  In the history of black education, the distinctions between formal and informal schooling are not as stark as in mainstream, white education.  This fact makes it important to investigate teaching and learning in places other than formal schools when conducting research on the history of African American education.

Professor Christine Woyshner teaches social studies methods and the history of urban education at Temple University in Philadelphia, USA.  She researches the role of voluntary groups and civil society in the history of education.  Professor Woyshner can be reached at woyshner@temple.edu and on Twitter @WoyshnerC.