Knights of the Wise Men
by Midnight Freemason Contributor
Steven L. Harrison, 33°, FMLR
In 2011, velvet-voiced pop singer Lionel Richie, a member of Lewis Adams Prince Hall Lodge No. 67, Tuskegee, appeared in an episode of The Learning Channel's popular series, Who Do You Think You Are. The show follows celebrities as they search out their family roots, usually finding a twist or two along the way. After some digging, the show began to focus on Richie's maternal great-grandfather, John Louis Brown.
In Nashville, where his maternal grandmother had been born, Richie discovered Brown, most likely born into slavery, had married his great-grandmother Volenderver in 1890, when she was only 15 and he was about 50. Before their divorce in 1897, the product of that marriage was Richie's grandmother, Adelaide M. (Brown) Foster.
Knowing his great-grandfather's name, Richie went to the Nashville Metropolitan Archive where things got interesting as they took on a fraternal air. City directories there listed John Louis Brown as Editor of the Knights of the Wise Men in 1880 and SGA of the Knights of the Wise Men in 1885. The title of Editor was a valuable piece of information indicating Brown was literate – not a guarantee back in those days. Richie's curiosity was piqued wondering who the Knights of the Wise Men were and what the designation SGA meant.
This sent him to Prince Hall Lodge No. 1 PHA F&AM in Nashville where he met with Professor Corey Walker, Brown University Historian of African Studies. The program makes no mention if Professor Walker is a Mason. With a prominent Square and Compasses in the background Walker explains, "Knights of the Wise Men was a fraternal order that also had a benefit for its members. The organization helped build bonds of community between African American men. It was an institution that provided financial benefits to all of its members for sickness as well as in death… It was the precursor of what we think of as modern insurance companies."
According to the show, the Knights of the Wise Men was founded in 1879 to address the needs of the black community. Walker reminds Richie that during that period white organizations were separate and did not admit African Americans. Pushed away from the white community after the Civil War, blacks created their own institutions to assist African Americans. One of these was the Knights of the Wise Men, which grew to 278 lodges by 1882. "These were the prototypes," says Walker, "of the organizations that helped propel the modern Civil Rights movement."
When Richie questions Walker about the meaning of SGA, he learns it stands for Supreme Grand Archon. "He wasn't just a member of the organization, he was its national leader." In addition, Professor Walker produces a book of the order's rules, laws, and regulations which Brown authored. The book contains lectures, signs and passwords, much like today's Masonic rituals, "J.L. Brown was at the forefront in building a significant institution to meet the needs of African Americans across the nation."
A newspaper article reveals the fate of the Knights of the Wise Men when it reports on an 1891 smallpox epidemic, which caused the organization to have to pay out substantial death benefits, draining the treasury. In addition, the article reports on the disappearance of its treasurer, S. Carl Walker, who ran off with much of the remaining funds. With that tipping point the Knights of the Wise Men began its decline.
Brother Richie points out this is the same period during which Brown's marriage fell apart, and the pressures of the demise of the Knights may have had something to do with it, concluding, "My great-grandfather went from being a scoundrel in my mind all the way to being one of the pioneers of the Civil Rights movement."
J.L. Brown moved to Chattanooga after the demise of the Knights of the Wise Men. Richie travels there to find out what happened to his great-grandfather. There, he discovers Brown became a cemetery caretaker and finds a book containing his picture. Brown's death certificate reveals his father was a Morgan Brown, his mother unknown. He is buried in the same cemetery where he worked, in an unmarked pauper's grave.
A final bit of research shows Brown was a slave, his owner being a Morgan W. Brown. In a confusing twist Richie finds a Dr. Morgan Brown had a son, Morgan W. Brown. Dr. Brown's diary reveals J.L. Brown's mother was a slave named Mariah, whom he stipulates to be freed, along with J.L., upon his death. The show leaves it to speculation as to whether Dr. Morgan Brown, 80, or his son Morgan W. Brown, 39, was J.L.'s father.
Documents shown in the program reveal John Lewis Brown died in 1931 at the age of 92. Writing of his fraternity he said, "We believe that an acre of noble oaks is 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 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."
Other sources indicate that prior to the fallout from the smallpox epidemic and the treasurer depleting its funds, the Knights of the Wise Men had a peak membership of about 350 lodges. It is recognized by some as the first insurance company in the United States. Today, on St. Helena Island in South Carolina, stands a building known as the Knights of Wise Men Lodge. A wood frame building built in 1899, it burned in 1940, and was replaced with the existing concrete structure which stands as the last remnant of a once-noble fraternity.