By Ben Steelman
c. StarNewsOnline 2012
Reprinted with permission
If you’re referring to organizations with secret oaths and rituals revealed only to members, yes, there are quite a few.
There would have been many more a century ago, when the Wilmington city directory devoted whole pages to secret societies.
Among the many secret fratnernal orgnaizations once active here but now apparently extinct are the Knights of Pythias, the Knights of the Golden Eagle, the Knights of Honor, the Improved Order of Red Men, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Ancient Order of Druids, the Heptasophs, the Ancient Order of Druids, the Junior Order of Mechanics, the Royal Arcanum, the Fraternal Order of the Eagles (whose local units were known as “aeries”), the Independent Order of Rechabites (who were devoted to temperance) the Independent Order of Foresters and the Benevolent Order of Owls.
The Knights of Pythias are still active with a Grand Lodge of North Carolina. For a while in the 1800s, Wilmington had five Pythian lodges (four for whites, one for blacks). Today, the nearest lodge is in Fayetteville. The former Wilmington Odd Fellows’ lodge, at 19 N. 26th St., now houses St. Jude’s Metropolitan Community Church.
According to historian Will D. Moore — who taught at the University of North Carolina Wilmington before accepting a post at Boston College — the high pont of secret fraternal organizations in America came in the years after the Civil War (although Masons were around much earlier and played a major role in the American Revolution). According to an 1897 study in the North American Review, as many as 6.5 million Americans, or as many as 1 in 5 adult men, belonged to one or more secret societies.
The societies faded during and after the Great Depression Among the reasons cited by scholars were competing opportunities for entertainment, including movies and later television, and the adoption of Social Security by the federal government. (Many of the secret groups had formed as mutual benefit or insurance societies, promising to care for a brother’s wife and family in case of death or serious illness.)
A number of formerly secret societies, including the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks and the Moose (both of which have lodges in Wilmington) abandoned secret ritual in the 1900s and became regular civic and/or social clubs, according to Moore.
A number of secret societies do survive. Here are some of the categories:
(1. Masonic bodies. St. John’s Lodge No. 1, which now meets at 4712 Oriole Drive, is recognized as the oldest Masonic lodge in North Carolina, founded in 1754. Other lodges include Orient Lodge No. 395 at 1312 Shipyard Blvd. and Wilmington Lodge No. 319 at 2910 S. College Road. All are affiliated with the Grand Lodge of North Carolina, Anicent, Free and Accepted Masons. Additional AF&AM lodges are located in Atkinson, Burgaw, Carolina Beach, Hampstead, Oak Island, Shallotte and Southport.
Scottish Rite Freemasonry in the area is represented by the Valley of Wilmington. Its Temple is located at 1415 S. 17th St. In addition, there are a number of “appendant bodies” affiliated with Masonry such as the Order of the Eastern Star for women and the Order of DeMolay for youth.
Prince Hall Freemasonry represents one of the oldest social organizations among African Americans. Relations between Prince Hall Masons and AF&AM Masons vary from state to state. Giblem Lodge No. 2 of Wilmington is one of the oldest Prince Hall lodges in the state. Its lodge building at 720 Princess St., dedicated in 1873, is a historic landmark. Other Prince Hall lodges in the area include Hanover Lodge No. 14, 1114 N. 30th St., New Light Lodge No. 61, Freeman Lodge No. 162, East Wilmington Lodge No. 561 and Progressive Lodge No. 830.
(2. The Knights of Columbus. This Roman Catholic fraternal organization was founded in 1882 in New Haven, Conn., in part to provide Catholic laymen with an alternative to the Masons, who were and still are proscribed by the Vatican. Although the Knights open most of their events to the public, their ceremonials and business meetings are restricted to members. As in other fraternal organizations, members pass through a series of degrees (four, in the case of the Knights), in which initiates are instructed in the virtues of Charity, Unity, Fraternity and Patriotism. Knights are extremely active in charitable work and have donated hundreds of thousands of pints of blood to the Red Cross. The organization also conducts a life insurance program.
Wilmington Council 1074 of the Knights of Columbus meets in the Tileston School building at Fifth and Ann streets. The Father James E. Waters Council 12017 meets at St. Mark’s Catholic Church. 1011 Eastwood Road.
(3. Fraternities and sororities. Although the collegiate brotherhoods and sisterhoods sometimes object to the term “secret societies,” most share an initiation process, with watchwords, mottoes, handshakes, signs and other lore limited to members only. Currently, the Univeristy of North Craolina Wilmington recognizes 14 fraternites under its Interfaternity Counil, eight sororities for women under its Panhellenic Council (Alpha Chi Omega will officially come on campus in the fall semester of 2012) and six historically African-American fraternities and sororities under the National Pan-Hellenic Council. For more information, see http://uncw.edu/fratlife/organizations/index.html.
(4. Woodmen of the World. Most people think of Woodmen of the World as an insurance company, and it is. The Woodmen, however, began in 1890 as a fraternal benevolent assocation, and members of Lodge 6 in Wilmington are seeking to revive the group’s fraternal aspects, according to Moore. The Lodge 6 meeting hall is at 204 N. Kerr Ave.
For many years, one of the benefits of membership in Woodmen of the World was a tombstone. These tombstones, shaped like tree stumps, are common sights in Wilmington’s Oakdale and Bellevue cemeteries.
(5. Grand United Order of Salem. A sisterhood of African-American women, the order dedicated its lodge at the corner of 12th and Castle streets in 1979.
(6. The Ku Klux Klan, founded by Confederate veterans in 1865 in Pulaski, Tenn., was once extremely active in Southeastern North Carolina. (For complete details see W. McKee Evans’ history of Reconstruction in the region, “Ballots and Fence Rails.”) The white supremacist group died out in the 1870s but was revived in 1915 at Stone Mountain, Ga., and remained powerful through the 1920s. (Publicity from the movie “Birth of a Nation:” did not hurt recruiting.) A third revival came in the 1950s and ’60s as a result of the civil rights movement.
The second Klan adopted much of the ritual of fraternal orders of its period with elaborate titles (Kleagle for recruiter, Kludd for chaplain, Klavern for local unit, Kloran for rule book). The only titles carried over from the original 1860s Klan were Wizard, for national leader, and Night Hawk, for security officer.
As of 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center (a liberal organization that monitors hate groups) lists the Klan as moribund in Southeastern North Carolina.
Footnote: According to historians, the 1860s Klan did not burn crosses. Cross-burning was an invention by North Carolina author Thomas Dixon Jr. (`1864-1946), who wrote it into his 1905 novel “The Clansman,” which was the basis for the screenplay of “Birth of a Nation.” Dixon, who was trying to tie the Klan to the traditions of Scotland, had his fictional Klansmen adopt the burning cross on the hillside, a traditional signal by the Scottish clans to rally their warriors for battle. In an example of life imitating “art,” real-life Klansman picked up the practice.