The Grand Court Order of Calanthe of Texas is one of the largest, oldest, and most successful African-American women-run fraternal insurance organizations in the United States. It was organized in the waning years of the nineteenth century at a time when African Americans were systematically relegated to second-class citizenship and women struggled for equal rights. During the “Golden Age” of fraternalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Grand Court was unique because it was one of the few African-American fraternal organizations led and controlled by women. Even beyond the Golden Age, it continued to be an important source of benefits, business and professional training, employment, and leadership for African Americans, especially women, in Houston and throughout the state of Texas.
Fraternal organizations provided not only mutual aid and economic assistance for its members, but they became one of the few venues outside of the church where African Americans could exercise leadership and influence within their communities. They also stressed the moral and cultural values that remained important to African Americans despite their exclusion from formal politics and civic leadership. Therefore, these types of organizations were important symbols of African-American culture and self help.
Fraternal organizations became incubators of black economic development after Reconstruction by offering insurance which led to the development of the first African-American banks and other insurance companies. Most of the very popular largely male fraternal organizations such as the Colored Knights of Pythias created subordinate female auxiliaries. In the late nineteenth century, this group organized the Supreme Court of the Independent Order of the Court of Calanthe in May 1883 at its national meeting in Vicksburg, Mississippi. By the end of 1883, five other courts were organized, including one in Texas, the Pride of Galveston No. 4, but it quickly died out. In the mid-1890s Susie H. Norris of Dallas organized Queen Thelma Court No. 1. It was her desire to form a grand or state-level court and at least five local courts were required to do so. Norris and other Calantheans organized six additional courts and formed the Grand Court of the Order of Calanthe of Texas in 1897. The original seven Texas courts were: Queen Thelma Court No. 1, Western Beauty No. 6, and Leading Star No. 7, all in Dallas; Philomathean No. 5 in Fort Worth; Silver Spray No. 2 in Marshall; Merits of Knights No. 3 in Austin; and Hermione No. 4 in Houston. The Grand Court elected Norris Grand Worthy Counsellor [sic] (GWC), a position similar to the president, in 1898 at its first official meeting.
Initially the Calanthe order grew slowly in Texas and struggled to create an identity separate from the Knights. The Grand Court competed for members with other popular fraternal organizations in the state, such as the International Order of Twelve of Knights, Daughters of Tabor, United Brothers of Friendship, and Sisters of the Mysterious Ten. Norris stepped down in 1902, and America D. Key of Greenville became the new GWC. Key was a former schoolteacher from Nashville and owned an undertaking establishment. Under Key’s leadership (1902–25), the order grew dramatically, and by 1920 the Grand Court had grown to be one of the largest colored Knights’ auxiliaries in the United States.
Key modernized the Calantheans’ insurance business, including obtaining a state permit to conduct fraternal insurance. She also insisted that the Grand Court operate independently of the Colored Knights of Pythias. The Court’s motto “Fidelity, Harmony, and Love” was similar to other women’s auxiliaries, but its constitution and by-laws encouraged not just industriousness, with its connotations of domestic work within the home and involvement in activities related to the family, but also acknowledged the reality that many African-American women had to work to support their families. The Court attracted women from a broad range of economic backgrounds: from domestics and fieldworkers to business owners and educators. It also provided professional, white collar jobs for African-American women who worked with the endowment, or insurance, department.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, passage of stricter state regulations on companies and organizations offering insurance only strengthened the financial position of the Grand Court. In 1916 the Grand Court authorized a $30,000 loan to the Colored Knights for completion of the Knights of Pythias Temple in Dallas. Without the auxiliary’s financial assistance, construction of the temple could not have been completed. However, Key and a number of Calantheans became angry that they were not allowed a larger role in the building project or in managing the temple after completion.
Starting around World War I, migrations to cities in the South and the North created a growing African-American urban population with even more complex needs. Fraternal organizations preserved personal connections within the anonymous atmosphere of cities through rituals and ceremonies, leisure activities, and civic activities such as parades. Fraternal organizations also addressed economic needs that were not being met by local, state, and federal governments, reformers, unions, or employers. The growth of the Grand Court reflected these demographic and social changes. For example, it offered a second, increased endowment policy in the mid-1910s.
When Key died in 1925, the Court had assets in excess of a quarter of a million dollars. Grand Worthy Counsellors Fannie McPherson of Gainesville (1925–34) and P. E. Davis of Calvert (1934–44) ably led the Grand Court through the Great Depression, one of the most trying economic crises in United States history. McPherson adjusted the Grand Court’s investment strategy and began heavily investing in state and federal bonds and limited the Court’s investments in mortgages and loans. The strategy proved a prescient one because the bulk of the Grand Court’s assets were left intact after the 1929 stock market crash. The Great Depression squeezed Negro insurance companies and organizations in several ways. As policyholders found it increasingly difficult to part with their precious dimes and nickels for all but the most critical necessities, policies quickly lapsed as rent, food, and other priorities pushed weekly dues and payments to the bottom of tight family budgets. Alternately, policyholders needed more benefits. Lost jobs often required tapping into fraternal benefits for unemployment and sickness benefits or borrowing against the equity in their policies to make up for lost income.
Thousands of fraternal organizations and insurance companies failed during the Depression, but the Court continued to operate profitably, buoyed by more than a half million dollars in assets and investments. It offered financial assistance during the economic crisis by making small loans to members. These loans allowed many members to pay property taxes and save their homes from foreclosure. The Court also created a relief fund that provided small sums to help members with daily expenses, and donated money to Paul Quinn College in Waco.
The Grand Court was a political ally for black activists in the early 1930s. Calantheans, led by their sorority sister Lulu White, canvassed ward neighborhoods to raise awareness about and money for Richard Grovey, a Houston barber whose challenge of the White primary in Texas went before the United States Supreme Court in the case of Grovey v. Townsend (1935). Calantheans also attended mass meetings and participated in public demonstrations.
During World War II, the Grand Court purchased more than $100,000 in war bonds. After the war, the Grand Court began making mortgage loans; developed a modern, automated office system; and operated an employment service.
In 1948 the Grand Court built its headquarters on 2411 Dowling Street in Houston. At the time of its construction, it was one of the most modern structures built, financed, owned, and managed by African-American women in the U.S. The organization previously operated its offices in the home of GST Fannie A. Robinson in the late 1930s.
In 1951 the Grand Court originated and completed the first federal farm home loan by an African-American organization in the Southwest. By 1955 the Grand Court had over $1 million in assets and 25,000 members.
For more than two decades, the Grand Court’s headquarters was a vital center of business, community, religious, and civic activities in Houston’s Third Ward. The Grand Court leased space to other African-American businesses and professionals, and many of the African-American churches in the Third Ward neighborhood of Houston had their genesis in its free community meeting rooms. However, the civil-rights movement from the late 1950s and the women’s movement from the early 1970s affected membership in the Grand Court as African-American women’s outlets in other activist organizations and opportunities for professional positions in corporate America increased, which resulted in more options for securing the economic future of their families.
Throughout the late twentieth century, the Grand Court continued to provide community services in addition to its business of insurance benefits. By the mid-1950s it became the first African-American fraternal order to join the Texas Fraternal Congress. In the 1960s and 1970s the Grand Court continued to work closely with the local Houston NAACP. In the 1970s the Grand Court opened a home for delinquent juvenile boys called the House of Bees. From the late 1980s to the mid-1990s the house operated under the name Progressive Adolescent Learning Services or PALS. In the 1990s the Grand Court assisted with the citywide SEARCH Homeless Project.
The Grand Court continues to confidently make its way in the twenty-first century. By the 2010s the organization had more than 12,000 members in 313 courts across the state. The Court’s newsletter, The Calanthe Talk, was published semi-annually. Calantheans volunteer their time and raise money for local charities, needy families, and children in the Houston area. It offers college scholarships through the V. A. Bradford Fund and organizes hand bell choirs and dance groups. The Harris County Historical Society designated the Grand Court’s headquarters a county historic landmark in 2011; that same year a Texas Historical Marker was erected. The cornerstone of the Grand Court headquarters states that it is “dedicated to Negro Womanhood.” The Grand Court reflects the difficult but inspiring history of African-American women, and it remains a living testimony to the optimism, determination, and generosity that lie at the heart of the American experience.