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The Mosaic Templars of America (MTA), an African American fraternal organization offering mutual aid to the black community, was founded in Little Rock (Pulaski County) in 1882 and incorporated in 1883 by two former slaves, John Edward Bush and Chester W. Keatts. Taking its name from the biblical character of Moses, the organization offered illness, death, and burial insurance to African Americans at a time when white insurers refused to treat black customers equally. The name metaphorically linked the organization’s services to African Americans and the oppressive conditions of the Jim Crow South to Moses’s leadership during the Israelites’ Exodus from slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. At its peak in the 1920s, the organization had an estimated membership of over 100,000 members and had chapters in twenty-six states, the Caribbean, and South and Central America. Headquartered in Little Rock throughout its existence, the MTA exemplified a successful black-owned business enterprise. It expanded its holdings to include the Mosaic National Building and Loan Association, the Mosaic State Hospital (which also supported a nursing school), and the Mosaic Guide (originally American Guide) newspaper.
The founding of the MTA in the late nineteenth century was part of a larger fraternal movement in which thousands of men and women (white and black) joined organizations that offered insurance benefits and camaraderie. However, since white American fraternal organizations refused to issue charters to black groups, African-American branches were forced to obtain a charter from an organization’s European counterpart (like the Prince Hall Masons did in 1784) or create their own organizations. The MTA is an example of the latter—an independent, African-American fraternal organization without a white parallel.
The MTA exemplified turn-of the-century fraternal values like mutualism, good moral character, self-reliance, thrift, and business training. John E. Bush’s anecdotal origin of the MTA testifies to some of these values. Bush’s story involved himself, along with a prominent white man and an elderly black woman. Bush described an awkward situation as the elderly woman interrupted the two men’s conversation to ask for a donation to help pay for her husband’s burial, despite that fact that he had held a “good position” in the black community. Bush and Keatts saw the MTA’s burial and illness insurance as a way to help members save money and alleviate poverty in a dignified way. While the origin tale is important, the timing of the MTA’s founding in 1882 was likely linked with the events surrounding an 1881 Prudential study that showed a higher mortality rate for African Americans. The study caused most insurance companies to raise rates or refuse African American customers.
The core operations of the Mosaic Templars consisted of several departments: endowment, monument, analysis, uniform rank, recapitulation, records, and a juvenile division. The monument department provided every deceased member with a custom-made “Vermont marble marker” engraved with the MTA symbol. Many of these headstones can still be found in cemeteries across Arkansas and the Southeast.
The executive committee consisted of seven chief officers: National Grand Master, National Grand Scribe/Treasurer, National Chief Grand Deputy, National Grand Medical Examiner, National Attorney General, National Grand Auditor, and National Monument Secretary-Treasurer. Bush and Keatts served as the first chief financial and operating officers until their deaths in 1916 and 1908, respectively. Bush was the National Grand Scribe/Treasurer, and Keatts was the National Grand Master. Bush’s sons, Chester and Aldridge, succeeded him, and both subsequently served in his post after his death. Chester died on November 18, 1924, and Aldridge succeeded him in the post.
In 1911, the MTA purchased land at the corner of West 9th and Broadway streets, the head of a thriving black business district, for its national headquarters, the National Grand Temple. Frank M. Blaisdell, a local civil engineer and architect, served as the chief designer of the four-story building. For construction, the MTA selected the Windham Brothers Construction Company of Birmingham, Alabama. The brothers, Thomas C. and Benjamin L. Windham, grew up in Louisiana and built structures throughout the South and Midwest. They built Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and at least five structures in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), including the Southern Mercantile building and St. Peter’s Catholic Church. On May 18, 1913, the building’s cornerstone was dedicated, and the building was completed by October 15, 1913. On that date, Booker T. Washington delivered the dedication speech to a crowd of 2,100 black and white citizens (with more outside) in the third-floor auditorium.
The impressive four-story building was designed to hold retail businesses on the first floor. One of the most notable establishments was Foster’s Drug Store, operated by Dr. William O. Foster. The second floor was dedicated to the MTA offices and other professionals such as dentists, lawyers, real estate agents, and an office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The third-floor auditorium and fourth-floor balcony, with its ornate neoclassical design and pressed tin ceiling, hosted a variety of community activities such as dances, political gatherings, fraternal meetings of other organizations, high school proms and graduations, and musical performances.
In 1918, a two-story annex was built on Broadway Street next to the headquarters. The annex’s second floor housed a thirty-bed medical facility and a training school for nurses from 1927 to 1931. Added to the Broadway Street complex in 1921 was a third building, the State Temple Building—a design of W. T. Bailey, a Memphis-based African-American architect.
In its prime, the MTA boasted a roster of esteemed local and national black leaders in addition to Booker T. Washington, founder and president of the Tuskegee Institute. Other notable members and officers included Scipio A. Jones, an Arkansas lawyer and central figure in the defense of the black sharecroppers rounded up following the Elaine Massacre; Professor Joseph C. Corbin, the first president of Branch Normal College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) and third Grand Master of the Arkansas chapter of the Prince Hall Masons; Scipio A. Jordan, second International Chief Grand Master of the Knights and Daughters of Tabor International Order of Twelve; Joseph A. Booker, president of Arkansas Baptist College; and Dr. Elias Camp Morris, president of the National Baptist Convention.
In the early 1930s, the MTA began to feel the effects of the Great Depression, and like many other fraternal insurance providers, it eventually ceased operations. The organization was placed into receivership in 1930. It appears to have resumed operations later that year as the Modern Mosaic Templars of America with Scipio Jones as its new National Grand Scribe, but records of its existence in Arkansas cease by the end of the decade. However, the Mosaic Templars’ fraternity survived internationally. Chapters of the British United Order of Mosaic Templars survived in Jamaica at least until 1938, and a chapter in Barbados, the Grand United Order of Mosaic Templars of Barbados W. I., continues to meet into the twenty-first century.
After the demise of the MTA, its former headquarters was occupied by a moving and transfer company, an auto supply store, and an auto upholstery shop; it sometimes sat vacant. The annex burned in 1984, while the State Temple remains standing and occupied by a medical firm. In 1992, in response to a fast-food restaurant’s interest in razing the National Grand Temple, a grassroots advocacy group formed to save the building. The Society for the Preservation of the Mosaic Templars of America Building saved the building from demolition in 1996. The City of Little Rock purchased the building to preserve it, and in 2003, the city turned the building over to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, which was overseeing an $8.6 million renovation in preparation to open the building in late 2006 as the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, the fourth museum of the Department of Arkansas Heritage.
An early-morning fire on March 16, 2005, destroyed the Mosaic Templars’ National Grand Temple in downtown Little Rock. The Department of Arkansas Heritage and the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center vowed to build a new structure on the historic site. A new $7 million Cultural Center was planned to reflect the architecture of the original headquarters and the annex. The center, which opened on September 20, 2008, presents exhibits interpreting Arkansas’s African-American history from 1870 to the present. The third-floor auditorium resembles the original auditorium, including a horseshoe-shaped balcony and a stage with a proscenium opening.
On August 16, 2005, as construction crews prepared the site for the new Cultural Center, the staff discovered several artifacts and documents inside the cornerstone of the former National Grand Temple, including an inscribed copy of black leader Mifflin W. Gibbs’s autobiography, Shadow and Light, several ritual books, and a “History of the Temple” by John E. Bush.
For additional information:Beito, David T. From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890–1967. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Bush, A. E., and P. L. Dorman, eds. History of the Mosaic Templars of America: Its Founders and Officials. Fayeteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2008. Earlier edition online at http://www.mosaictemplarspreservation.org/history_mosaic/history.pdf (accessed June 27, 2008).
Bush, John E., IV. “Interview with John E. Bush IV.” Audio online at Butler Center AV/AR Audio Video Collection: John E. Bush IV Interview (accessed May 7, 2012).
Butler, John Sibley. Entrepreneurship and Self-Help among Black Americans: A Reconsideration of Race and Economics. rev. ed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.
Mosaic Templars Building Preservation Society. http://www.mosaictemplarspreservation.org/ (accessed February 19, 2007).
Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. Department of Arkansas Heritage. http://www.mosaictemplarscenter.org/ (accessed February 5, 2007).
Blake WintoryMosaic Templars Cultural Center
Ashan R. HamptonLittle Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated 5/7/2012
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