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United Sons of Ham of America (USH) was a popular African-American secret society in the South during Reconstruction. In Little Rock (Pulaski County), the Sons of Ham was established on October 7, 1865, and was considered the city’s first black benevolent fraternal organization, starting with twenty members meeting in a wood-frame building. The goals of the society were to encourage industry, brotherly love, and charity by providing support to the widows and orphans of its deceased members. The Sons of Ham enforced a strict moral code that included no gambling or drinking. Although the organization proclaimed itself to be non-political, an annual convention held in 1871 closely resembled a state legislative session in which bills were introduced and passed and speeches given. In addition, the society had several members who wielded strong political clout as elected city officials and community leaders. It is unclear how the group derived its name, although it was likely associated with early religious teachings that held that Africans were the descendants of Ham and the misconstrued notion that Ham was cursed by Noah, his father.
By the 1870s, officers included founder Emmanuel Aiken (1842–1902), who had served as a corporal during the Civil War with the Eleventh Regiment, United States Colored Infantry (later reorganized as the 113th). After the war, he became a Little Rock policeman, an elected street commissioner, and pension agent. If Aiken continued as a member, he did not seem to have surfaced again in a leadership role. From 1870 to 1876, the following fraternal brothers served in the office of president: Henry H. Powers, an elected street commissioner; James W. Jackson, a school teacher; Isaac Singleton, a city policeman; and Samuel (S. L.) White. Most of these men served multiple or alternating terms in leadership. The society, composed of men between the ages of eighteen and fifty, had about seventy-five members in Little Rock between 1870 and 1871 and flourished for nearly two decades with branches in what is now North Little Rock (Pulaski County), Searcy (White County), Fort Smith (Sebastian County), and Pine Bluff (Jefferson County). The extent of the society’s expansion across the state is unknown, but reportedly in 1873, thousands attended an annual grand lodge in Little Rock. The group incorporated in 1876, more than a decade after its founding.
Their second building—a three-story, box-shaped structure—stood on the west side of Broadway, between 8th and 9th streets, near Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which at the time was at 9th and Broadway. The second and third floors were used for lodge meetings and the first floor as a school, called Howard School. The group sometimes held banquets and meetings at nearby Bethel AME, where some of its influential brothers may have been members.
Samuel H. Holland was the principal of Howard School, which was named in honor of Oliver O. Howard, commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The society leased space to the Little Rock School Board for three years. Charlotte Andrews (Lottie) Stephens, known as Little Rock’s first black public school teacher, was there until the end of the 1870 term; she left to attend Oberlin College in Ohio. The school board closed Howard at the end of November 1871, and students transferred to Union School. After the school’s closing, Holland went to work as a clerk in the county clerk’s office. He later became sheriff of Chicot County and then served in the Arkansas Senate as a Republican in 1873 and 1874. Also, after the school’s closing, the first floor was used as a public hall where many affairs concerning the black community were handled.
Adolphine Fletcher Terry’s book about Stephens quotes Stephens describing the society and its rituals. She remembered that, at the funeral of a deceased fraternity brother, members marched behind a hearse drawn by horses with long black plumes soaring from their heads; a band led the procession. She further stated that “since slavery had denied educational opportunity and freedom of assembly, these early societies united a race which had purposely been kept apart. They helped the development of a newly emancipated people, even though there was intense rivalry between the different groups.”
The United Sons of Ham celebrated their founding each October with great fanfare that included music, parades, banquets, guest speakers, and other activities. It is unknown where the society first originated, but evidence points to its existence in Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. Societies across the country may have observed individual founder’s days instead of one standard date. For instance, Little Rock celebrated in October, but members in neighboring Memphis, Tennessee, recognized their thirteenth anniversary on July 4, 1872. Certain dates were especially important and regularly observed, such as Emancipation Day on January 1 and Independence Day on July 4. Emancipation Day and founder’s day were required public events for members. To honor these, the society took the lead in arranging and participating in local celebrations. In September 1871, still very proud of their newfound freedom, the Sons of Ham, along with the Prince Hall Masons and other benevolent fraternities, were a part of a combined event honoring the anniversary of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and the cornerstone installation at Bethel AME. They marched in the processional to Bethel wearing dark blue sashes. William H. Grey, an eloquent African-American orator who had served in the state legislature as a Republican, was the guest speaker. Reportedly during this time, a copy of the society’s history was placed in the cornerstone of the church. Grey was again the speaker at the organization’s July 4 event in 1873.
Women’s auxiliaries called Daughters of Ham, or the Ladies Court of the Daughters of Ham of America, were in existence—as typical of many fraternal organizations—with one located in Pine Bluff. The wives in Little Rock were socially involved in arranging and taking part in activities, but there is no evidence of an official auxiliary in Little Rock.
In some parts of the country, the Sons and Daughters of Ham were known to either establish their own cemeteries or obtain burial plots in others as an added benefit to its members. This included a back section at Oakland Cemetery in Little Rock, known in their records as the Sons of Ham section. It took several requests before the city finally donated ground in 1888 for the Sons of Ham, the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows (GUOOF), and other black benevolent organizations—something that was already in place for other groups. However, the society was likely using the cemetery even earlier.
Freemasonry arrived for black Arkansans by way of Helena (Phillips County) in 1869 and three lodges were soon established. In 1873, these lodges met in Little Rock to form the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Arkansas. The Grand Lodge was organized in the Sons of Ham Hall, and a local St. John’s Lodge met regularly on the third floor. It is unknown exactly when the Sons of Ham became defunct, but the organization was around at least up to 1888 when it was named in the city’s petition for cemetery space. Its last known president, S. L. White, who died in 1895, is buried in the Sons of Ham section. With its early members dying off, a self-imposed age limitation that may have jeopardized member loyalty and commitment, and the arrival of other national societies into Arkansas such as the Prince Hall Masons and Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, the society eventually faded out of existence.
For additional information:
McDowell, Linda. “United Sons of Ham of America: Little Rock’s First African American Benevolent Society.” Pulaski County Historical Review 62 (Winter 2014): 139–142.
“Miscellaneous Items: Sons of Ham.” Brooklyn Eagle (Brooklyn, New York), June 11, 1866.
M. W. Prince Hall Grand Lodge, Arkansas. “Proceedings of the Forty-Fourth Annual Grand Communication of the Most Worshipful Sovereign Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the State of Arkansas.” August 8, 1916. On file at the Arkansas History Commission, Little Rock, Arkansas.
“The Sons of Ham.” Daily Republican (Little Rock, Arkansas), July 19, 1873, p. 4.
“The Sons of Ham.” Dallas Weekly Herald (Dallas, Texas), May 11, 1878.
Terry, Adolphine Fletcher. Charlotte Stephens: Little Rock’s First Black Teacher. Little Rock: Academic Press, 1973.
“The Twenty-Second Anniversary of the Preliminary Proclamation of Emancipation.” Morning Republican (Little Rock, Arkansas), September 23, 1871, p. 4.
“United Sons of Ham.” Arkansas Gazette, October 8, 1874, p. 4.
Little Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated 12/23/2014
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