Cellulose nitrate negative, 1914, showing 25 African American men, members of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, Lodge No. 3211, sitting and standing in 2 rows on the sidewalk and street edge in front of a building with the sign, I.O.O.F., in Tacoma, WA. In the center of the group, the ceremonial lodge banner is displayed. Most members wear ceremonial hats, aprons, and collars, with the insignia and rank abbreviations visible on the collars. Four men hold ceremonial staffs, and one holds a fraternal sword upright in his hand. One seated man holds a cane. Tacoma’s black community developed early for the Pacific Northwest due mainly to the railroads and the solid, respected and quite well paid jobs on passenger trains, in the depots and in the large hotels. Its likely that most of these gentlemen worked for the Northern Pacific or Great Northern railroads as dinner car chefs, night porters or small businessmen operating barber shops and newsstands at Union Station or the Tacoma Hotel. Others were merchants, shop keepers along the busy K Street line, stevedores or employees of the many mills and manufacturing plants on the industrial tide flats. Tacoma was thriving in 1914 and the affluence of these members reflects the times.
As fraternal organizations went, the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows was unique. Its origins were in England where a black American sailor named Peter Ogden went in 1842 to seek formal recognition from the British Grand United Order after the American Oddfellows had denied them recognition due to race. The organization began in Philadelphia and spread west with the transcontinental railroads after the Civil War. The Northern Pacific Railroad had important financial ties to Philadelphia, where Board President and Tacoma patron Charles Wright’s banking and business ties were based. The Tacoma chapter of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows prospered in the NP’s headquarter terminal city, annually sent a strong delegation to national conventions back east and faded with the railroads after the Second World War. It was one of the most influential black secular organization in the city for generations and included in its membership, Tacoma’s most respected African Americans.