by Paul R. Spitzzeri
On this day, being the Federal observance of the Juneteenth holiday, declared last year by President Biden, it seemed particularly opportune to share the featured photo from the Homestead’s collection for this post because it is representative of the many ways in which Black Americans sought to nurture their self-sufficiency in the face of systemic racism and oppression even after slavery was officially abolished and slaves freed in the 1860s.
One specific approach was through the creation by the Reverend Moses Dickson, in 1871, of the International Order of Twelve, of Knights and Daughters of Tabor, a fraternal organization established in Independence, Missouri. As with many such orders, the purpose was for mutual benefit of members in time of need, but, while there were many white mutual benefit societies, these were closed off to African-Americans, so Dickson saw a felt need and met it with the establishment of what was commonly known as the Taborians.
As stated in an 1891 biography from the Order’s manual, Dickson was born in Cincinnati in 1824, though his parents had migrated from Virginia to the River City just a few months prior to his birth. Dickson was orphaned at age 14 with the death of his mother, his father having passed six years prior, and he immediately learned the “tonsorial art” and became a barber, a common occupation for Black men limited in the fields of work available to them.
At 16, Dickson toured the South for three years and “saw slavery in all its horrors” and “witnesses such scenes of monstrous cruelty” that these sights “caused his African blood to boil with suppressed indignation.” After this wrenching experience, he “became a life-foe to the slave-owner, the slave-driver and the slave-trader” and the result was the formation, in 1846 at St. Louis, of the secret Knights of Liberty, dedicated to seeking the freedom of all enslaved Black Americans.
Within a decade, there were over 47,000 members, and the intention was to foment a slave rebellion within that period, though an insurrection was called off when it was apparent to Dickson and his compatriots that an armed revolt was not the means to achieve their goal and the Knights of Liberty folded as the Civil War took place. Dickson met with John Brown and tried to dissuade him from carrying out the ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859.
To keep the hidden work of the Knights of Liberty protected, Dickson, in 1855, established the Order of Twelve at Galena, Illinois for the express purpose of aiding slaves escaping to the North through the Underground Railroad, though the organization closed four years later. He also was president in the late 1870s of the Refugee Relief Board, which helped transport 16,000 Blacks to Kansas, which two decades prior was a hotbed of violence between abolitionists and pro-Slavery agitators.
During the Civil War, he served in the Union Army and, after the conflict’s conclusion, he was ordained as an African Methodist Episcopal minister in St. Louis. Another vital project was his instrumental role in establishing in the state capital of Jefferson City what became Lincoln University for training African-American teachers in Black schools.
As a Freemason, Dickson’s decision to establish the Knights and Daughters of Tabor was in line with his views about fraternal societies and the uplifting of Black people in the United States. The “Order of Twelve” part of the name was in honor of the original cadre that founded the Knights of Liberty a quarter century before, while Mount Tabor, west of the Sea of Galilee, is the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was transfigured.
In August 1872, a convention was held for the order at Independence and the order’s Manual stated:
Societies are organizations of a number of persons to accomplish a certain object, or to obtain a desired end. Man was made a social being; he must have society, or the company of a fellow-being, or he will drift into barbarism and brutality. Man is an intelligent being Civilization, art, science, and architecture, and government, must come only from an united effort. Therefore, the members of the International Order of Twelve have formed one band, united by the strongest ties of friendship, and bound together by solemn obligations, and established on a firm basis, for the purpose of making a united and effective effort in aiding each member in sickness or distress, to protect and defend each other, to aid and help the widows and orphans of members that died in good standing, to inculcate true morality, that the members of the International Order of Twelve may be an example to the masses of mankind.
It is the highest and bounden duty of every member of the Knights and Daughters of Tabor to individually and collectively help to spread and build up the Christian religion. The Order of Twelve is non-sectarian — all members of the Order are free to make their choice of any Evangelical Church. The members of this Order are reminded that education and a cultivated mind will open the way to a useful and respected life. We are admonished to use every honorable method to advance the cause of education. The members of the International Order of Twelve are advised to acquire real estate — this makes a man or woman a substantial and reliable citizen. Avoid intemperance; cultivate true manhood; eschew immoral and degraded people. Let your bearing and deportment be such that will show you to be a lady or a gentleman. Live an exemplary life, and you will die respected. Knights and Daughters of Tabor, it is in your power to make the International Order of Twelve a real and lasting benefit to mankind.
By 1891, it was asserted that the “Order has taken its place and rank with the greatest Colored organizations of the world” and that it “meets the necessities and wants of the Colored people” through its emphasis on Christian education and morality and in temperance (the abstaining if alcohol). Moreover, it instilled “the art of governing, self-reliance and true manhood and womanhood” and “recommends to its members the getting of homes and the acquiring of wealth.”
When the Black population of Los Angeles continued to grow significantly in the first couple of decades of the 20th century, it was decided to establish a lodge in the Angel City. W.B. Rich was the Deputy Grand Mentor and the earliest located mention of the organization was in the 14 February 1914 edition of the Black-owned California Eagle, which reported that the society presided over the laying of a cornerstone at St. Paul’s Church on 23rd Street near Hooper, an area which was heavily populated by African-Americans at the time..
It was added that the group had grown rapidly in recent months. Josephine Brawn, a Grand Officer of the Order while living in Illinois, told the assemblage that “while very young in your midst . . . we have come to stay” and added that the Order was established in Los Angeles “to fill one of the greatest needs of the race,” which was “to improve the heart, exalt the mind, promote virtue and morality and quicken acts of charity, fidelity and purity, and unity.”
Brawn continued that “our bases are unity, race pride, charity, purity and love” and noted “that this Order more than any other will unite the race and elevate us to the highest moral, religious and intellectual standpoint. ” Rich also spoke and answered the question of what fraternity means, namely, “the relations of brotherly love of men and women associated together by common bond of interest” in that “[we] run to the relief of all who are in distress and more especially a worthy Sir Knight or Daughter.”
Rich went on to observe that
True knighthood must have for its foundation strong and noble characters, men with great hearts, men who can stand erect and look the world in the face, and prove that true friendship, as was exemplified by Father Moses Dickson and the Knights of Liberty . . .
To be a Knight or Daughter of Tabor you must be worthy of love . . . each Sir Knight and Daughter enjoys implicit confidence in each other . . . and true to ourselves in time of need . . . [so that] fraternity puts its loving arms around us, lifts us up and encourages, soothes and comforts us.
He concluded by telling the audience that the Order collected and paid out some $100,000 annually for an endowment, counted 25,000 members and had several hundred tabernacles located in temples (churches), so that it was “the greatest Order in the world known today” that was “founded and operated by Negro brains.”
In the 13 June 1914 edition of the Eagle, a notice was run that stated that the organization would have its annual sermon on Sunday the 21st at 3 p.m. at the A.M.E. Zion Church, located on Paloma Street at Pico Boulevard (the church is now on Adams Boulevard west of Vermont). This area was a section of downtown that was home to many Black Angelenos, though there was a migration to the south as the community significantly. Members were asked to gather at Noon at Central Hall, situated at Central Avenue and Washington Boulevard, before proceeding to the church.
Given the predominance of African-American women in the photograph, it is notable that, in the Eagle of the day before the sermon, there was an article, “The Negro Woman in America” by Eloise Bibb-Thompson (1878-1928), who’d settled in Los Angeles three years before and who was a noted educator, poet, playwright and active in Catholic women’s clubs. Thompson, who in 1915, wrote “A Reply to Clansman,” a rejoinder against the highly controversial (though technically lauded) D.W. Griffith film, better known as Birth of a Nation, stated,
Sorrow, humiliation, loss and agony unspeakable have been the portion of the daughter of Ethiopia, from the early days of antiquity . . . [and] torn from the bosom of Africa, thrown naked into the hole of a vessel, bound with a mass of unfortunate, desperate men to be used for slave-traffic she was brought to this country, placed upon the slave block, and sold to the highest bidder.
Then began the tragedy of the Negro woman in America. Mated, with no choice whatever in the matter, to every lustful rogue who cast eyes upon her . . . her over-charged soul found relief for its miseries in the plantation melodies she chanted in the fields . . .
Yet, in spite of this environment of baseness and slavery, the flames of aspiration and of moral rectitude have never ceased to burn in the soul of the Negro woman in America . . .
Freedom has opened to her the avenue of opportunity. She has profited by her advantages, and her accomplishment during the last fifty years has been an eye-opener to the world . . .
After asking readers if this progress was to continue, including under the guise of religious inspiration and guidance, Bibb-Thompson offered one of her poems, including a portion that reads, “Stern mothers of a coming race! / The future, colored black or blue, / With guile or virtue on its face / Will e’en be marred or made by you / The thoughts you dream from morn to morn, / The lives you live will deeply mold / The countless souls of men unborn, / For generations yet untold.”
As to the aftermath of the event at the AME Zion Church, the Eagle simply summarized, in the issue of the 27th, that “the Knights and Daughters of Tabor turned out in fine style to their annual sermon.” But, in its edition of the 4th of July, the paper published, from the annual sermon, a lengthy history of the Order by the priestess of one of the local tabernacles and who emphasized the ancient connection of African-Americans to ancient Ethiopian roots, including Dickson’s story, and much of which seemed directly based on the manual referred to above. One element recorded that his dying mother implored the boy “to never stop until he put forth every effort to free the people of his race.”
The account reiterated that “this grand and noble Order meets the necessities of colored people, its origin was from our own Ethiopian race, its founder was a colored man, whose wonderful work shall live on and on.” After lavish praise for Dickson, the speaker also complimented Rich “for his loyalty and faithfulness in trying to establish this grand and noble Order in Los Angeles” while enduring “trials, struggles and many disappointments” that did not stop him from his valuable work. Under his supervision, nine tabernacles and temples were established, including the New Beulah Tabernacle #43 in June 1913, and the “tabernacle” of which is in the photo.
In subsequent years, the Taborians remained very active in the Black community of Los Angeles, including the December 1919 laying of a cornerstone at the AME Zion Church, with up to 1,500 persons, half being Taborians, expected to attend. The Eagle reported that “the Knights and Daughters of Tabor is one of the two Fraternal Orders on the Pacific Coast operated entirely by Negroes” and added “this fact has contributed largely to its wonderful progress.” A half-dozen tabernacles and half that many temples took part in the event.
Five years later, the Annual Grand Session of the Grand Temple and Tabernacle was held at the Grant Chapel AME Church in Watts on 1 July 1924, with the state’s grand mentor coming down from San Francisco to preside. Among the addresses was a recording that there were 1,120 members in the various temples, tabernacles, tents and royal houses, with one the latter established in Watts during the prior year. Reports from officials and the treasurer were presented, as was one about death benefits, a major operational element of such fraternal societies, with a dozen claims paid out during the year. A reception following the session included an address by Watts’ mayor, the city not being annexed to Los Angeles until 1926.
The following year, a holiday message was published in the Eagle from the Chief Grand Mentor, though, unfortunately, the typesetting was done so that the statement was presented in unmatched sections. The gist, however, from Thomas B. Norman, concerned Taborians employing Christian ideas in spreading charity to those in need, especially at the Christmas season, and in following the precepts laid down by the founders more than a half-century prior.
In the late 1920s, notices and short news items in the paper concerned Taborian picnics to Monrovia, a “popularity contest” involving the raising of money through the sale of coupon books with cash prizes awarded to the top three in popularity in securing funds, and a May 1929 visit by the state’s Chief Grand Mentor and Grand High Priestess with a joint session held at the filled-to-capacity Elks Hall at Central and Washington and which included addresses on the Order and its work, including the growth of more tabernacles, temples and tents.
The Order continued its work for several more decades, though, as with all fraternal societies, membership diminished over the years and activity appears to have tailed off by the 1960s. The national Order was best known in later years for a hospital it built in the all-black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi and which operated from 1942 to 1983. This rare photo is representative of a growing movement in Los Angeles and reflective of broader efforts for the uplifting of the Black community through service to members in need and its date of 21 June happens to be serendipitous because of today’s federal observance of the Juneteenth holiday.