One of the oldest, if not the oldest, African American male organization in the state of Virginia – Hiawatha Beneficial and Social Association was organized in 1873. According to recorded history of Hiawatha Beneficial and Social Association, in “August 1873 a group of young men between the ages of 16 and 19 congregated on the corner of Bute and Smith Streets, on a warm summer evening, instead of being in church. A member of the group suggested the idea of organizing a social club which was received with a resounding agreement. The home of Robert T. Fern, on Liberty Street, was the site for the first meeting. After bantering around several names, the organization decided upon the name “Hiawatha of Indian Legend.”
There were over 20 young men in the original group. The initial officers were Benjamin F. Wallace, President; Vice President Samuel T. Jordan; Robert T. Fern, Secretary; and James Malbon, Treasurer. To announce their organization to Norfolk’s society, a social affair was held on January 7, 1874 at Crescent Hall located on the corner of Cumberland and Kent Streets (old site of the Samuel C. Armstrong School). Since the members knew little about the customs and ethics of society, they “only joined in the popular ring plays of the day – and sang such songs as King William was King George’s Son, Taint Going to Rain No More and Georgia Roll.” Following the gaiety of the ring plays, the members and their guests danced such square dances as Quadrille, Dolly Varden ending with the Virginia Reel; however, a few tried the waltz. All of the songs were played by their three piece orchestra. The guests, many of whom were of the older citizenry were adorned in the finery of the day Swiss muslins and satins (the women); and the men wore the conventional black Prince Albert coats, white vests and black trousers.
In addition to their social gatherings, Hiawatha members provided an Annual Picnic to disabled veterans of the Civil War at the Soldiers’ Home near Hampton, Virginia. Another feature of the Hiawatha Club, was a debate between two of the college educated members and debates from Hampton Norman School. After the debate which was won by the Hiawatha’s, a dance followed.
The Club was reorganized, in 1897, with a Sick Steward and a Board of Directors added to the official staff. This followed a period of low key enthusiasm, because of problem with a high ranking official when a Hiawatha member delivered an invitation, to a maid, to the front door of the city official. Beginning under the leadership of Daniel Brown, in 1903, a new spirit was rekindled and was again looked upon as the Club “with dignity and social poise.” Although they continued their annual affairs, in 1913, the “Black and White Formal” became a tradition where the men wore tails, white ties and gloves; and the women wore either black or white gowns with elbow length gloves. The men gave their ladies flowers and provided horse drawn carriages to take them to the dance. During World War I, the Black and White Formal was curtailed and a more serious ideology became apparent. A committee was appointed to learn about programs that would be of great assistance to the membership. An insurance plan, for members in good standing was adopted and continue until 1986. The plan included sick benefits for a number of weeks and a death benefit.
During the 100th Anniversary Banquet-Dance, Donald Brown was presented as the youngest member and C. A. Palmer, the son of one of the founding members was introduced as the oldest member. The Club evolved as community minded more so than fulfilling their social needs. Some of the civic organizations serviced by the Hiawatha Beneficial and Social Association include the NAACP (life membership); Hunton YMCA (oldest African American YMCA in the country); Norfolk State University; United Negro College Fund (UNCF); Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts; and the I. Sherman Green Chorale.
Today there are 25 active members, from diverse professional backgrounds, of this historical organization. They are following in the footsteps of such men as Waymon C. McCoy, Thomas Barber, William H. Palmer, James Singleton, C.C. Dogan, William A. Hunton, I. Sherman Green, Conway Mitter, Southall Bass, Hilary Jones, Jr., Thomas W. Young, Lester Moore, Sr., H. Delaney Young, Albert Dinkins, Herbert D. Proctor, Louis L. Hughes, and W. C. Fulford. The membership of the Hiawatha Club still are involved in many endeavors.
Congratulations to these men, after over 100 years of continuous civic involvement, as they continue their work in the Hampton Roads community.