Kaitlin Greenidge spends time with the United Order of the Tents, a secret society of Black women
Annette Richter is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen: silver hair surrounding a nearly unlined face, with wide, kind eyes. She is, understandably, treated like a celebrity in this hotel banquet hall in Chesapeake, Virginia, full of about 150 black women, and although I am able to briefly introduce myself, I am quickly prevented from saying more by some very politely determined women who encircle her for selfies.
This is the first night of the 150th anniversary celebration for the United Order of Tents, a secret society of black women. Annette Richter is the great-great-granddaughter of Annetta M. Lane, the enslaved woman who founded this order in 1867. I am not sure if you have ever been graciously but firmly pushed out of line by elegantly dressed black senior citizens, but I can tell you the experience is nothing short of affirming. “Excuse me, dear.” “Darling, could I just?” they say, and Annette is surrounded, and I realize my chance to talk with her will have to come another day.
The opening lecture at this year’s gathering is about the different colors of roses and what they mean. “There is a language to roses,” our mistress of ceremonies, Sister Morristine H. Bowman, says carefully into the microphone. “Yellow roses with a red tip means to fall in love over and over again,” she explains. As she reads off the different meanings, pairs of women rise from the banquet tables. They glide together to the front of the room, carrying a bouquet of the correctly colored roses, their outfits color-coordinated to match the theme. “Black roses symbolize death,” the speaker says, “so don’t ever give them unless you know the person well.” Two women near our table rise — they are dressed all in black: black blazers, black skirts, and elegant black lace gloves. They produce from somewhere on their person two bouquets of black artificial roses and march triumphantly to the front of the room to take part in the parade of flowers.
One of the women at our table tells us that they pick a different topic each year to discuss. They decide what they want to educate each other on, choose how they will dress, and choreograph how they will enter the hall. When we have heard about all the possible colors of roses — “Blue roses are not found in nature. They are made by man. Therefore, they symbolize all that is impossible, insurmountable” — everyone in the room stands, links hands, and sings.
The women settle back down and the president of this chapter, Lodis Gloston, stands and begins to call out to the members present. “Raise your hand if you are 85 or older,” she says, and about six women raise their hands. “Raise your hand if you are 95 or older,” she says, and three women keep their hands raised. The South Carolina chapter’s oldest member is 106 — Donella Wilson. She was photographed this past November casting her vote for Hillary Clinton. She’s not here tonight, but the oldest woman in attendance is Queen Logan, who is 99 years and nine months old. The Tents give each other honorifics: everyone is Sister, but women who contribute to the organization with the most service are called Queens.
Queen Logan wears a literal tiara on her head, as do many of the other Queens, and her sisters are her caretakers on this trip. The women of the Tents applaud her, and Lodis continues speaking. During her speech, though, a woman on the other side of the banquet hall gets up, walks over to the oldest Queen, and hands her a small bundle of cash. The women have taken up a spontaneous collection for their eldest member. “Don’t spend it all in one place,” she winks, and Queen Logan grins.
This is a moment that exemplifies the spirit of the Tents. It is an organization made up of dozens of chapters all over the South and Northeast, with hundreds of members currently. It was founded on the ideals of freedom, independence, and self-autonomy, but it is also firmly rooted in the practical. The Tents is a massively successful, wonderfully efficient community self-help organization that has operated without outside help for over 150 years. But because it is run by and for black women — black churchwomen — it is largely unknown and in fact was deliberately kept secret for much of its existence.
Annetta M. Lane and Harriet R. Taylor, two black women from Virginia, founded this order in 1867. Annetta was enslaved in Virginia and, according to her family’s history, was a nurse on her plantation. This role meant that she moved both among the white enslavers in the main house and among the black people the family enslaved in the fields. Such a role meant she was valuable to the white slavers, and it also meant she could transmit information and care to those enslaved.
She was, in short, a perfect agent for the Underground Railroad, and by most accounts, she was instrumental in helping women escape. Except for one — according to her family’s history, her sister was a field hand and their white enslavers sold her. Annetta never knew where to, and she never saw her again. It’s unknown how Annetta obtained her freedom, but she lived for nearly 50 years after the end of slavery, guiding this order to stability. Annetta, who was born into slavery, who lost her family members to enslavement, died in a house with sixteen rooms, stained-glass windows, a private carriage, and flush toilets, a place she intended to house her family for generation.
The organization was a Christian benevolent association. During slavery and Reconstruction, black people founded organizations like this — some explicitly religious, some professional, some unaffiliated — to act as both social organizations and powerful places of safety under a hostile, predominantly white government. These organizations served as banks when most white-run institutions refused to trade or secure mortgages for black individuals or institutions. They served as insurance when insurance companies did the same. And almost just as important, they served as affirmation of black personhood, dignity, and independence at a time when the wider world insisted on black inferiority.
These organizations fell out of favor right after the civil-rights movement, when the world of unhindered possibility they worked so hard for seemed within reach. But with recent events, it seems, we need them now more than ever. In the past few years, especially in the past few months since the election, there has been a renewed interest in what it means to politically organize. Every day, my Twitter feed is full of cartoon avatars pleading with unnamed masses to call their senators, to sign this online petition, to donate to this GoFundMe. What strikes me most, when I read these things, is relief and elation that a larger number of people are recognizing that our current social structures are unsustainable and deeply cruel.
But what also surprises me is how many people believe that organizing is something new. How many seem to believe the route of shaming people into political action is effective. How few people seem to talk about community, about joy, about love, when discussing political action.
It is perhaps because my family comes from the political tradition of the black civil-rights movement that these sentiments seem to me to be absolutely necessary for any political movement claiming the mantles of justice and equity. And it is also that tradition that defines love not as a saccharine emotion or a manipulative plea to keep people from acknowledging the very real inequity around them. It is love as it is in the Bible, an always-radical act, an act that makes the lover dangerous, because she dares to acknowledge that which is usually cast aside as worthy.
If your very self is dangerous, how do you keep it safe? For the Tents, the answer lies in secrecy. From the beginning, when they operated as an organization to help women escape slavery, they operated furtively. Later, as they worked to build wealth and economic independence in a segregated world, secrecy was again key. They incorporated under the name of two white lawyers both because it made gaining credentials easier and because those names helped shield the radical work they were doing.
Even today, the Tents operate in secret. There are parts of this conference that I will not be able to attend as an outsider. And the sisters have their “signs and grips” — hand motions and movements to communicate with one another that only the initiated learn. In the banquet hall, as the first night’s banquet draws to a close, President Gloston says, “We planned something today where we can have fellowship, laugh, and appreciate each other, because that is the love we send each day.”
The banquet is over. The women push back their chairs from the table, begin to gather their things. “If you come later tonight,” one of them says, “you’ll see us in our African finery. It’s what we always wear for that event.”
A word on the sartorial brilliance of the Tents. These are women who know how to dress, who understand the importance of a smart outfit, who do not need an essay in material cultures to tell them about the signifiers of class and rank in the buttons on a blazer or the presence or absence of white stockings.
The hallway in the hotel leading to the banquet room is lined with tables where businesses sell their wares. All these businesses are small and black-owned. It is another piece of the Tents’ pragmatic activism — a very real example of economic justice. There’s a woman who is custom-embroidering tea towels with her portable sewing machine: they are emblazoned with words like “SISTER” and “PREACHER.” There’s a display of purses — in the Delta and AKA colors — and, of course, the many bags that just have variations of Michelle Obama’s beaming face.
The Tents’ commitment to practical organizing and their radical use of fashion becomes even more apparent that evening. This event is open to the public, so there are men here, as well as white politicians and leaders who have worked with the Tents on community projects. The biggest and most impressive of these is an affordable-housing complex that the organization owns and runs. The Tents were able to secure a multimillion-dollar contract from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to build affordable apartments for black senior citizens. They also employ some of their own members to run and maintain the complex.
Nearly everyone in the hall, except for the visiting politicians, is in “African” dress. These are truly impressive outfits that put the faux-batik skirt I bought on Fulton Street to shame. The women wear dresses of burnt orange and black and gold, and the men scattered across the audience are wearing purple and blue.
A member stands and delivers the history of the Tents again. She says, “Our membership includes professional women and businesswomen as well as homemakers. This encompasses a wide range and embraces women from all walks of life. Our order does not exclude any woman based on your situation in life, your wealth, or your lack of wealth, prestige, or denomination.”
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