United Order of True Reformers
The Grand United Order of True Reformers began in 1873 in Alabama and Kentucky as a fraternal society for African Americans. It was managed, to a large extent, by deputies of the all-white, pro-temperance organization the Independent Order of Good Templars. William Washington Browne, an African American who spoke passionately against "king alcohol," tried to apply for formal membership to the Good Templars but was denied because of his race. When the Good Templars agreed to foster a separate all-black affiliate group called the United Order of True Reformers, Browne accepted this level of support. Although Browne did not actually found the True Reformers, he eventually transformed the order into a mutual benefit association and broadened the organization's membership by traveling throughout the South building smaller chapters—or "sub-fountains"—while preaching temperance. From Browne's perspective, alcohol and drunkenness were the primary causes for the disproportionate numbers of blacks in penitentiaries and, because convicts were denied the right to vote, the main reasons that so much of the black community had been disfranchised. During his address to the order on April 8, 1895, Browne recounted that by 1879, the work of the True Reformers had helped reduce the number of blacks condemned to work on the chain gang from five thousand convictions per year to only five hundred.
While more fountains of the True Reformers and other temperance societies came into existence during this time, the True Reformers went through a period of bitter infighting caused primarily by Browne's desire to change the organization's course and focus. As Reconstruction (1865–1877) ended and the era of Jim Crow began, Browne came to believe that the organization was adequately supporting the commercial and educational needs of poor blacks. While the federal government had provided some assistance through the Freedmen's Bureau, that agency's resources were not sufficient, and Browne's ambition—pursued via the Grand Fountain—was to create an all–African American economy of goods and services, independent of government assistance.
In 1881 Browne founded The United order of True Reformers: "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." Browne left Alabama in 1880 and settled in Richmond, Virginia, where he built his powerful Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers (GFUOTR) with branches in twenty states by 1893-94.
The national organization thus had its headquarters in Richmond, Virginia.
True Reformers offered this reason for the "fountain" terminology:
"The names of our societies are Fountains. 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." (From Twenty-five Years History of the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers, W. P. Burrell and D. E. Johnson Sr., 1909)
The True Reformers offered far more than the standard African American benevolence societies of that era, which mostly were cash benefits to members for family burial expenses.
In 1889 the GFUOTR organized the first chartered black bank in the United States, the Savings Bank of the Ground Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers, with deposits amounting by 1907 to one million dollars. The fraternal order owned real estate, purchased a farm, a hotel, owned over a dozen halls; they also became involved in insurance, which provided for the support of widows and the education of orphans.
In 1885 the Order organized and put in operation a department for children known as the Rosebud Department. The Rosebud fountains for youth addressed "the great need for reform among . . . children in teaching them that there is a higher and nobler purpose for which they can use some of their pennies besides spending them all for delicacies and toys; teaching them to unite themselves together for the bond of union and love, and to assist each other in sickness, sorrow and afflictions …"
The GFUOTR became a model for banking and insurance enterprises throughout
the South. With the death of Browne in 1897, the bank, however, survived only
another decade and collapsed in 1910 as a result of mismanagement and
embezzlement. The True Reformers continued, nevertheless, as a fraternal order
and insurance agency until its demise during the Great Depression.
Grand United Order of True Reformers: