By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
The United Order of Tents, Inc., has the distinction of being the oldest fraternal and benevolent organization in America composed or primarily run by Black women.
In 2017, the United Orders of Tents which is headquartered in Norfolk, will be 150-years-old and the organization’s leadership and members are gearing up to celebrate a century and half of service to the Black community.
For the next 21 months, the organization has planned a series of pre-anniversary events to promote the observance and illustrate that it is still viable and its members are active and busy.
The group is broken down into five Districts nationally and there are about 30,000 members. The Southern District No. 1 is the largest and includes Norfolk, where the Tents were first formed – two years after the Civil War ended – by two Black women who were free during the conflict.
The United Order of Tents was incorporated on June 17, 1883, by the Circuit Court of the city of Norfolk as “The J. R. Giddings and Jolifee Union.”
Through error, the corporation became popularly known by its present name and on June 28, 1912, a charter amendment was granted changing the name. The Order was first licensed as a fraternal benefit society in 1906 and has continually operated as such, according to the Tents’ website.
There have only been seven presidents of the organizations starting with Annette Lane in 1878. Today, the president is Lodies Gloston.
Patricia L. Ingram, who has been a member for 29 years, holds various roles in the Tents, including the assistant leader and Treasurer of the Philena – Norfolk branch. She is among the organizers of the Tents’ upcoming anniversary celebration.
She said her mother and grandmother were members.
On October 17, a breakfast will be held at Queen Street Baptist Church, she said. Long time member Josephine Scott will be the keynote speaker during the event.
Ingram said the main anniversary event will take place next June at various sites about the region. A banquet and other events will be held at the Chesapeake Marriott.
Ingram said there will be a convoy of members to Norfolk’s historic Calvary Cemetery, the burial site of one of the Tents’ main founders Annette Lane.
Her grave is the only one adorned with a huge angel ornament, Ingram said.
Then the convoy will roll to Hampton, the hometown of the group’s co-founder, Harriett R. Taylor. A tour and event will be held at West Haven, the first housing unit for the poor and elderly the organization built.
Ingram said that organizers of the Tents’ 150th anniversary are inviting descendants of past members to participate in the upcoming events.
She said the organization will be planning a number of fundraising events to continue its mission of assisting the elderly, poor and civic and civil rights organizations like the NAACP and others.
Female-dominated Greek groups, such as Alpha Kappa Alpha or Delta Sigma Theta, have memberships which exceed the Tents because these and other sororities routinely attract college students to their ranks.
Ingram said the Tents have juvenile and adult wings and the membership wants to use the upcoming anniversary celebration to recruit new and younger members to replace an aging base.
She said the Tents group has a total female leadership structure. Other groups may have men participating in their organizations to some degree, especially on their boards.
“We are on a quest to reinvigorate the organization,” said Ingram. “We want to educate people about the history and mission of the Tents. Once they know about the group’s legacy, they will be interested in joining us and supporting our mission.”
Jean Richardson, who is also a member of the Eastern Stars group, has been a member of the Tents for three years.
“I enjoy the fellowship among the mission and fellowship the organization provides,” said Richardson. “This is a organization made up of Christian women devoted to uplifting their people and our community.”
The mission of the Tents began before the end of the Civil War when free Blacks in Norfolk specifically, according to Ingram, devised ways to help each other.
She said that Norfolk like Fortress Monroe in Hampton, was a destination for Blacks who escaped the slave plantations. While many of these Blacks stayed in Norfolk because Union troops occupied the city, many like Tents’ co-founder Annette Lane found a pathway northward, in her case to New York.
“After the War, she came back to Norfolk. She and Harriet Taylor joined forces with other Black women to form the Tents, to help the sick, the poor and children.”
The Tents’ headquarters has been located at various addresses on Norfolk’s Church Street since the early 1900s. Now it’s at 1620 Church Street.
“When I was a child my mother and grandmother would take me to the meetings, but I had to sit out in the hallway,” said Ingram. “I would listen to what they were doing inside that meeting room and that made me curious. It inspired me to join.”
For more information about the upcoming anniversary observances and the United Order of Tents go to www.unitedorderoftents.org/index.html.