Composed by William PLEASANT
Here we will learn how the club was formed, what political context drew it into being, and how the club socially impacted Black Baltimore over the span of over 100 years.
Arch Social is widely viewed as the longest standing Black men’s club in Baltimore and in the State of Maryland. There is little controversy over this fact. But is the Arch Social Club the oldest organization of its type in the United States? The decision is split.
Social clubs evolved out of the reformist movement in Victorian-era Britain. They were established as locations where working class men could attend lectures and take part in recreational pursuits. The Reverend Henry Solly founded the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union (CIU) for this purpose in 1862. Many middle class social reformers founded these clubs during the temperance movement as a place to relax without alcohol, but in time this changed. They became a combination of public houses (pubs), music-halls, and clubs–places to be entertained, to drink socially and to play bar games. Today in the UK, social clubs are not very fashionable, especially given their commonplace hostility toward the patronage of women and racial minorities.
In the United States and among Black people, during the same era, a similar movement evolved. But it was highly tinged by the particularities of American racial politics.
By far, the oldest and biggest African America social and mutual benefit group was the International Order of Twelve Knights and Daughters of Tabor, a Black fraternal organization best known as the sponsor of Mississippi’s Taborian Hospital.
This secret society was originally founded as The International Order of Twelve in 1846 as an armed, militant Black abolitionist formation. The Order was eventually re-organized in 1872 as a fraternal organization in Independence, Missouri.
Rev. Moses Dickson, a clergymen of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, led the organization’s emergence as a social club. In the 1890s, the group claimed to have 100,000 members in thirty US States, The Caribbean, England and Africa. Men’s lodges were called “Temples” and women’s lodges were “Tabernacles”. There were also juvenile lodges of The Order called “Tents.” Male and female junior members were known as Pages of Honor and Maids, respectively. The Taborians of today have subsided in numbers, but they remain active in support of the restoration of the Mount Bayou hospital.
On the other hand, New Orleans, Louisiana’s famed ZULU SOCIAL AID AND PLEASURE CLUB lives on and is contemporaneous with Baltimore’s Arch Social Club. In 1908, John L. Metoyer and members of a New Orleans mutual aid society called “The Tramps,” attended a vaudevillian comedy show called “There Never Was and Never Will Be a King Like Me.” The musical comedy performed by the “Smart Set” at the Pythian Temple Theater on the corner of Gravier and Saratoga in New Orleans included a skit where the characters wore grass skirts and dressed in blackface. Metoyer became inspired by the skit and reorganized his marching troupe from baggy-pant-clad tramps to a new group called the “Zulus.”
In 1909, Metoyer and the first Zulu king, William Story, wore a lard-can crown and carried a banana stalk as a scepter. Six years later in 1915, the first decorated platform was constructed with dry goods boxes on a spring wagon. The King’s float was decorated with tree moss and palmetto leaves. In 1916, Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club became incorporated where the organization’s bylaws were established as well as its social mission and dedication to benevolence and goodwill. In 1933, the Lady Zulu Auxiliary was formed by the wives of Zulu members, and in 1948, Edwina Robertson became the first Queen of Zulu, making the club the first to feature a queen in a parade.
By 1904, Sigma Pi Phi fraternity, also known as the “Boule,” was established as the first Greek-letter society for African Americans. Within the decade, African American undergraduate college students established a dozen or more fraternities and sororities as small, selective social groups that revolved around a practical emphasis on scholarship and social activism.
Today, there are a total of nine surviving historically Black sororities and fraternities. They make up the National Pan-Hellenic Council, sometimes referred to as the “Divine Nine.” The Council includes Alpha Phi Alpha (1906), Alpha Kappa Alpha (1908), Kappa Alpha Psi (1911), Omega Psi Phi (1911), and Delta Sigma Theta (1913), Phi Beta Sigma (1914), Zeta Phi Beta (1920), Sigma Gamma Rho (1922) and Iota Phi Theta (1963).
In short, the history of Black secular organizations is quite rich. The Arch Social Club fits into that tapestry. But the Arch Social has a number of practical features that set it apart from the mysterious Taborians, the marching vaudevillian Zulus and the often elitist Black fraternities. These characteristics, when summed up, qualify Arch Social Club as the oldest Black men’s social formation of its type in the US.