Clinton J. Lewis Lodge #201
Bristol, PA


Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World: Brief History

Fraternal organizations proved popular among African Americans for the same reasons that they proved popular among other Americans: providing financial, spiritual, and emotional aid, they were invaluable to the communities they served. African American fraternities, however, had the added purpose of improving self esteem. First instituted during slavery, the membership, rituals, uniforms, and offices of these societies generated a respect not available outside of the lodges. Fully committed to economic, personal, and academic advancement, fraternal organizations have played a vital role in every phase of the African American experience.

One such organization is the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks of the World (IBPOEW). Currently boasting 500,000 members in over 1,500 lodges worldwide, the IBPOEW is the largest Black fraternal organization in the world. The IBPOEW's stated purpose is "that the welfare and happiness of its members be promoted and enhanced, that nobleness of soul and goodness of heart be cultivated, that the principles or Charity, Justice, Brotherly/Sisterly Love and Fidelity be inculcated, that its members and their families be assisted and protected, [and] that the spirit of patriotism be enlivened and exalted."

In early 1898, sensing a need for another fraternal organization in the African-American community in Cincinnati, Ohio, B.F. Howard and former slave Arthur J. Riggs collaborated to create an inclusive Order of Elks. Denied membership by the all-white BPOE, Howard and Riggs determined to admit "the qualified of all groups...throughout the world." Arthur Riggs was able to obtain a copy of the secret BPOE ritual. After consultation with attorney George H. Jackson regarding the legality of its use for a Black Elks lodge, who consulted the Library of Congress, they discovered that the ritual was not copyrighted by the BPOE, allowing Riggs to apply for its copyright instead. This he was granted, and on November 17, 1898, the first meeting of the Black Elks was called to order.

Word of the use of the BPOE ritual by African Americans caused severe rancor among the White Elks. Claiming that the Pullman porter Riggs had stolen a copy of the ritual from a man traveling on his train car, they set to dissolve the Black Elks organization. Riggs recalled this dispute, stating, "Whoopee! How the whites did howl, threats of all kinds were made against the members of the colored Elks Lodge. They assembled the artillery and attempted to march in, take our rituals and put the whole bunch in jail. We demanded to know what right they had to stop a Negro Elk Lodge from existing. We also demanded that the Exalted white Ruler show us his copyright for his ritual. He said we were here first, and you Negroes have no right to use to the BPOE Ritual. I said, look at this, and I produced my copyright signed by Uncle Sam and said, if I hear another word about a Negro Elk Lodge I will put the entire white Lodge in jail for infringing on my copyright."

The BPOE could not challenge Riggs on legal grounds, so they tried intimidation. White Elks in Birmingham, Alabama pulled him from the train on which he was a porter and threatened him with lynching unless he relinquished the charter on his next trip to Birmingham. Riggs agreed to do so - and never returned. He and his family left Cincinnati in 1899 for Springfield, Ohio. He said, "By my action in getting the Order started the white Elks in Cincinnati boycotted me and I could not hold a job, my family suffering because I could not get work to sustain them, and when I left Cincinnati and came to Springfield I went under an assumed name."

With Riggs in hiding, the running of the organization passed to Howard. With the help of another African American fraternity, the Knights of Pythias, the first chapter of the Black Elks was instituted in Cincinnati in 1899, with the full title of Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World. This change in title did not quell resentment among members of the White Elks. Although reconciled to the inevitability of a Black Elk organization, they resented the IBPOEW's use of the BPOE seal. Use of the seal by non-BPOE members was even ruled illegal in New York State in 1906. Sensing an opportunity to improve relations with the BPOE, the IBPOEW Grand Exalted Ruler Armand W. Scott ordered Black Elks to wear the IBPOEW pin and not the BPOE pin, even though they differed only by the initials engraved over the elk's head at center. This small difference, apparently, was enough. Iin 1918, the BPOE officially ended its opposition to the IBPOEW. The period of inter-fraternal strife was rendered closed.

Since that time, the IBPOEW and the women's organization, the Daughters of the IBPOEW, have continued to work for the African-American community. With departments as diverse as education, health, veteran's affairs, and civil liberties, the IBPOEW works to stay current to the concerns of African Americans and Black Elks worldwide.

Donald P. Wilson is the Grand Exalted Ruler, IBPOEW


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