Have you ever heard of the organization the United Order of Tents of J.R. Giddings and Jollifee Union? Probably not. And I am willing to bet that you would never guess that it was a covert organization for Black women. However, The United Order of Tents is one of the oldest and most secretive fraternal organizations run entirely by Black women.
This organization, also known as the Grand United Order of Tents, traces its roots back to the Underground Railroad operations in Norfolk, Virginia. It was founded by two formerly enslaved Black women, Annetta M. Lane and Harriet R. Taylor. While there isn’t much known about Taylor, Lane was a slave and acted as a nurse on the plantation. The position gave her the ability to move among the white enslavers and those enslaved. And she used that advantage to help slaves escape the South by way of the Underground Railroad.
In 1867, Lane and Taylor officially incorporated the organization under the names of white abolitionists, J.R.Giddings and Jollifee Union, for obvious reasons. It became the first mutual aid organization for women chartered in Virginia after the Civil War. The two women named the organization in honor of the tents runaway slaves used as shelter during their escapes. They viewed the Order as a “tent of salvation” intended to uplift and aid the Black community in Reconstruction’s challenging times.
The Tents, or chapters of the organization, focused their work in the community on caring for the sick and the elderly, helping those in need, and making sure the dead received a proper burial. They established several homes for the aged, including the Rest Haven Home for Adults that ran for over 100 years. The Order also provided loans for community members when banks refused. And they offered group insurance for members when insurance companies refused to service them.
These things may seem trivial, but The Order of The Tents was doing radical and sometimes even dangerous work. Hanes and Lane started this work in a very segregated world when many former slaves had just gained autonomy over their bodies and Blacks were treated as inferior members of society. These women had the audacity to take steps to support former slaves with their newfound freedom and help build wealth and economic independence in Black communities.
They knew they were doing risky work in their communities, hence the secrecy of the organization. This sisterhood created rituals and customs that are only made privy to members of the Tents. Those wishing to join the organization must receive an invitation from a current member. Moreover, they adhere to a Christian code that one can guess was another attribute that also contributed to The Order’s members’ safety.
In over 120 years of existence, The United Order of The Tents has grown in size and scope to include national, district, and local membership levels that span Georgia, North Carolina, District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. The Order has acted as a social organization, a place of safety and sisterhood, and a collective force of action.
The United Order of The Tents was at the onset of what has become known as “the Black women’s club movement.” The assemblage of Black women into fraternal organizations centered around improving their community’s welfare defined this movement. It brought about the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and The National League for the Protection of Colored Women, which later merged with other organizations to form the National Urban League. And many of these women participated in the creation of the National Association For The Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Mary Church Terrell, the first president of NACW, best described the work of these organizations in her first presidential address. She stated, “We call ourselves an Association to signify that we have joined hands one with the other, to work together in a common cause. We proclaim to the world that the women of our race have become partners in the great firm of progress and reform . . .We refer to the fact that this is an association of colored women, because our peculiar status in this country . . . seems to demand that we stand by ourselves . . . Our association is composed of women . . . because the work which we hope to accomplish can be done better . . . by the mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters of the race.”
Women’s History Month and Black History Month often overlook women like Annetta M. Lane and Harriet R. Taylor. But the women of the United Order Of The Tents faced many prejudices and yet still forged forward with the important work of caring for their community behind the scenes. And even though they spent many years operating in secrecy, they should get the recognition they deserve.
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