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What do the first insurance company in the United States, early mutual aid organizations, smallpox, and Lionel Ritchie have in common?
I’ll give you a hint, it’s the title of the column.
My daughter is writing an article on a famous Alabamian for school this week. She chose Lionel Ritchie because of his history of adoption and something to do with her teacher’s ex-boyfriend’s relationship with Ritchie’s daughter. I’m not entirely sure to be honest, but then again I was in the middle of fixing dinner. Anyway, I began researching Ritchie for this week’s column, but there wasn’t a lot to say about him that hadn’t already been said. I do think it’s interesting that he was the very first artist to receive an RIAA diamond album award. But anyway.
Lionel Richie’s great-grandfather was John Louis Brown, the principal organizer and the Supreme Grand Archon of the Knights of the Wise Men. The Knights are a fraternal organization that focuses on mutual aid and burial/disability insurance for members.
Things like this were necessary evolutions from the Civil War. The organization was primarily a means of mutually providing insurance and burial benefits to members, as many people of color had no means or opportunity to obtain such benefits.
This is not to say that John Louis Brown is a perfect person. In fact, his first marriage is a matter of great discomfort. Mr. Lewis, 50, married 15-year-old Volenderver Brown in 1890. This marriage ended in divorce in 1897 and produced Lionel Richie’s maternal grandmother. While this is entirely assumption on my part, I doubt that the divorce was particularly amicable.
It is suggested by Masonic historians that the Knights of the Wise Men was founded in 1879, and it had exploded to more than 270 different lodges in just three years. Mutual aid organizations like KWM were the foundation upon which later Civil Rights organizations were built, as are current Libertarian and Anarchist movements – and as mentioned before, it was the first insurance organization in the country’s history. Without Knights of the Wise Men, we might not have The Black Panthers or Jake from State Farm.
The Knights continued to thrive for the next decade. Unfortunately, however, the 1891 smallpox epidemic created tremendous financial pressures on the organization due to holding true to their commitment to making payments to member families of the deceased. This alone nearly emptied the Knights’ treasury.
The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, was S. Carl Walker. Mr. Walker was the treasurer of the Knights of the Wise Men. Mr. Walker quietly left the fraternal order due to the stress of the epidemic; he just so happened to take the remainder of the treasury with him. This directly caused the eventual dissolution of the fraternity.
John L. Brown died a poor gravedigger in Chattanooga at the age of 92. His words, however, carry forward the wisdom of the Knights:
“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.”