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Washington Neighborhoods
Endangered Elks

Proud, historic black fraternal club struggles to survive

Sunday, February 02, 2003

By Joe Smydo, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The formal name is Keystone Lodge No. 6 of the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World.

Locals use the shorthand name, Black Elks.

The fraternal organization's lodge at Highland and Burton avenues looks a bit run down, like other properties in Washington's Highland-Ridge neighborhood, and the financially strapped club is fighting for survival. Behind the dwindling membership and delinquent real estate taxes, however, is a proud story ripe for telling at the start of Black History Month.

"It was probably the center of the black community at one time," said Becky Bailey, an employee of the Washington County controller's office and once active in the lodge's womens group, Western Star Temple No. 3.

Founded in 1900, the lodge was the first Black Elks branch in Pennsylvania and the sixth worldwide. Its women's group, 100 years old tomorrow, is the third oldest IBPOEW auxiliary in the world.

During the era of segregation, the lodge was one of the few places in Washington black men and women could socialize. Forty-year member Robert Campbell said the lodge was organized by railroad porters who needed a place to kill time during layovers. Singer James Brown, jazz musician Lionel Hampton and groups such as the Delphonics and Earth, Wind and Fire are among the prominent black entertainers said to have performed there over the years.

The lodge is part of the world's largest black fraternal organization, the IBPOEW having about 450,000 members in 1,300 lodges. Two other local lodges are in Canonsburg and Donora.

The IBPOEW's reach extends to Panama. The group was active in the U.S. civil rights movement and provided scholarships to such luminaries as Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall and Oprah Winfrey, exalted grand ruler Donald P. Wilson of Philadelphia said.

The Black Elks are a secret society, like the Masons in some ways, but lodges often open their doors to nonmembers.

In Washington, Elks and temple members have organized Christmas parties, Easter egg hunts and cookouts for neighborhood families. Sara R. Beckner, daughter ruler of the women's group, said she has childhood memories of parades in which black women in white dresses tossed candy to children along the route.

The groups also have sponsored oratorical contests and beauty and talent competitions, extended charity to disadvantaged families and offered space to smaller black organizations that didn't have meeting places of their own.

The community also has gathered at the lodge on solemn occasions, such as funeral dinners too large to be held in the basements of the area's black churches.

The lodge shouldered additional duties as the Highland-Ridge neighborhood slid into decline. For example, Paul Brice, exalted ruler, said the lodge was the site of an anti violence rally after the April 7 shooting death of 23-year-old Michael Brown and a fund-raiser that helped Brown's family buy a tombstone.

City and county officials are in the early stages of a Highland-Ridge revitalization that will include new houses, businesses and green space. Brice also hopes to revitalize the lodge, down to about 50 members. Longtime member Melvin Richards said the lodge has a difficult time paying monthly bills, and real estate tax records show members are more than $5,000 behind in payments to the county, city and Washington School District.

"They are struggling," Wilson said.

Concerned about the lodge's future, Wilson said, the international organization began monitoring operations about five years ago.

The lodge held a central role in a closed, tightly knit community. As times changed, the lodge's importance waned.

Once, "you didn't go out of your community for anything. Now, everybody goes to the mall," Brice said.

Sadly, some Elks and auxiliary members said, some youths aren't fit for their groups.

"The young people now, they want to stand on the corner," longtime member Harold Burch lamented.

And Beckner said drug use is a big no-no.

"You got to be clean. You got to be willing to work to help other people. You got to be young and pure of heart."

The IBPOEW had its start in 1898, when two black men in Cincinnati, Ohio, were denied admission to the white organization known as the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. B.F. Howard and Arthur J. Riggs took the Elks' name and ritual and formed their own organization.

"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," according to a history of the IBPOEW compiled by students at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and posted on the Web site at www.northbysouth.org.

"African American fraternities, however, had the added purpose of improving self-esteem ... the membership, rituals, uniforms and offices of these societies generated a respect not available outside of the lodges," the students said.

Thousands of black fraternal organizations had come and gone by the end of the Great Depression, said David M. Fahey, who has studied the organizations as a history professor at Miami University of Ohio in Oxford. Some organizations, such as the Elks, were national enterprises patterned after white groups; others were the unique, parochial, short-lived creations of a small group of black men or women.

Fahey said remaining fraternal societies, black and white, are well past their primes.

Young men used to join such groups to gain maturity, but higher education has helped to fulfill that role since the end of World War I. Another important role -- offering members life insurance and death benefits -- has been undercut by the commercial insurance industry, Fahey said.

"It just doesn't appeal anymore, and these fraternal societies are very aging groups. ... The Elks are doing better than most, and I don't think they're doing very well," Fahey said.

Integration helped erode one of the black community's pillars. When black men and women had the opportunity to live, work and socialize where they wanted, the Black Elks lodges diminished in importance, Bailey and Brice said.

"The need is not there like it was before," Bailey said.

Originally located on Spruce Street, the lodge moved to the intersection of Lincoln and Chestnut streets, then to the current site of the LeMoyne Multi-Cultural Community Center on Forest Avenue, then to Hallam Avenue, between Lincoln and College streets, Campbell said.

The group bought the current building around 1950 and constructed an addition. The lodge booked some of the time's best entertainers, including many who traveled to Washington on Sunday afternoons following Friday and Saturday performances at the renowned Crawford Grill in Pittsburgh's Hill District.

Today, Brice said, the lodge has a difficult time attracting visitors because nightclubs, arcades and amusement parks are so alluring. But he's trying, with karaoke and other events.

Brice said he's confident the organization will not die. Other members aren't so sure.

"It is close to that now," Richards said.

Joe Smydo can be reached by at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 724-746-8812.

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