In Season 2 Episode 5 of NBC;'s "Who Do You Think You Are?", singer/songwriter Lionel Ritchie goes in search of his ancestors. His great-grandfather, J. Louis Brown, was a principal organizer and Supreme Grand Archon of the Knights of Wise Men, a fraternal organization for black men in the post Civil War period. Formed in Nashville in 1879, it was a fraternal insurance and burial benefit society, as were so many others during the period.
In the show, Ritchie meets with Dr. Corey D. B. Walker, Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University, at a Nashville Prince Hall Masonic Lodge, who shows him a copy of the rules and ritual of the three-degree order, written by his great-grandfather, J. L. Brown. Walker tells Ritchie that by 1882 the Wise Men grew to some 278 lodges in a brief period of time. Chattanooga newspapers from 1891 reveal that the order was financially strapped by an 1885 smallpox epidemic that required massive payouts of its insurance benefits, from which it never recovered. In 1891, the Wise Men's Supreme Secretary/Treasurer, S. R. Walker, vanished with the remaining contents of the order's accounts.
The order is mentioned in books as late as 1915, but was no longer a national organization. Its Chattanooga Lodge was the largest in the country.
It's a fascinating, albeit brief, glimpse into a very little-known fraternal group from the golden age of fraternalism.
In the 1904 Biography & Achievements of the Colored Citizens in Chattanooga, Brown writes of the Order:
It teaches impressive lessons about the fall of man and its consequences; it tells us of man in darkness; it talks to man of mortality, of death and the grave; it speaks of the shortness of time, the certainty of death, and of the necessity of a preparation; the immortality of the immaterial man, and the resurrection of our bodies from the tomb. In its degrees the necessity of brotherly love is taught, and the importance of the relief of distress, and consoling the afflicted. Some may ask, "Is friendship taught, and what is it?" We would answer: "It is disinterested mutual regard." One of the most important charges Moses left was a charge concerning disinterested brotherly love and a demonstration of friendship: "If thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee, then thou shall relieve him, yea, though he be a stranger and a sojourner, that he may live with thee."
We believe that an acre of noble trees are worth more than a countryside full of brush wood, and that one true and loyal Knight is worth more than a chamber room full of trash.
We fully recognize the fact that we are poor and need no weights upon us, and to make our way successfully through life requires thorough organization of the masses, without which our future cannot be a bright one. It is only by our good qualities rightly set forth that we are to succeed in the future. First by our educating every boy and girl and teaching from the cradle to the grave honesty, industry, economy of time and means, and the fullest enjoyment of all rights as citizens, and the destruction, death and burial of the accursed idea that the negro is inferior, simply because he has been in time deprived of life, liberty and property. Let us all be wise men and women.
BTW, Cory D. B. Walker's 2008 book, A Noble Fight: African American Freemasonry and the Struggle for Democracy in America is an outstanding work about fraternalism in the black community.
H/T to Brothers Mike Edwards and Stanley Lamarre