Black fraternal society rediscovered in Barbados

By: AP
By: AP

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- The history of the Mosaic Templars was believed to have drawn to a close in the 1930s, when the Great Depression swallowed one of the largest benevolent societies for blacks in the nation and likely the world.

Its finances ruined, the organization created by two freed slaves in the wake of the Civil War left little behind other than its iconic brick building in Little Rock's black business district. But even that relic is now gone, left in disrepair until transients trying to stay warm burned it down in March 2005.

However, 2,500 miles away in the tropics of the West Indies, a lodge still bears the Templar's name - one of the chapters that had once popped up in 26 states and six countries - and has kept the society's fire going while all others faded out.

"One seed was planted and from that seed, much fruit has been reaped," said Angelina Thornhill, a member of that surviving Mosaic Templars' lodge on the island of Barbados.

Members of the Barbados chapter came to Little Rock to attend the grand opening Saturday of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, a new building on the site where the organization's headquarters once stood. The new center offers a museum detailing black Arkansan history and the society.

The Mosaic Templars was founded in 1882 by John E. Bush, Chester W. Keatts and 13 others. It offered financial protection for many blacks during a time that saw the beginning of Jim Crow laws across the South, offering both burial and life insurance policies.

The fraternal society initiated its members through a series of eight secret ceremonies, based on the story of Moses and his deliverance of the Israelites out of Egypt, said John William Graves, a professor at Henderson State University who has extensively studied the group.

Graves said the stories carried a strong resonance for blacks struggling out of the servitude of slavery.

"For most of them, the experience of bondage would still have been a vivid memory," Graves wrote in an introduction to a book outlining the group's history.

As the group grew in prominence and financial security, and chapters were started elsewhere, it operated a building and loan association, a publishing company, a business college and a hospital.

Then came the Great Depression, which wiped out its finances as members pulled back on paying dues to focus on providing for themselves and their families.

Eventually, an Internet search by members of the chapter in Barbados, curious about their roots, reconnected them with the parent they never thought they had.

"We were standing alone," said Hilary Bruce, the Grand Mosaic Master of the Barbados chapter, formed in 1928.

The Barbados chapter still focuses on helping the sick and injured. Burial insurance slowly drifted away in the age of prepackaged funeral arrangements, but those who followed the chapter's initial flock of police officers, sailors, teachers and business owners still focus on its priorities, Bruce said.

The Mosaic Templars "teaches that we are all created as one similarly," he said. "There are no differences in us. If we are going to be brothers, we have to treat each other as brothers."

Time, however, is once again against the Mosaic Templars. Bruce said only 20 people now belong to the last remaining chapter. At age 59, he acknowledges something must be done to increase its ranks.

"In a couple of years, all of us will be gone," Bruce said.

Bruce said the focus in attracting new members must be on instilling the same Christian principles held by Bush and others who founded the organization.

Thornhill, however, puts her faith in the free market, noting Bush was a businessman first.

"If we are to get the temple to continue, ... we have to take (it) more so from a business aspect," she said in her British-lilted English. "Today, children, young people, they don't know anything about rituals and they don't want to hear that. This is all foreign to them. They want something that is tangible and more practical."

Regardless, they all believe there is a purpose for this lost tribe born of Arkansas.

"We were still there, keeping the chain," Thornhill said. "We were the link to the chain."

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On the Net:

Mosaic Templars Cultural Center: http://www.mosaictemplarscenter.com/

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