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153 years later, Christian fraternal group started by slaves still thrives

Taking care of the elderly was one of the original missions of the benevolent organization, when Annetta Lane and another former slave formed the order in 1867.

NORFOLK, Va. — After the founding of the country's oldest all-female African American fraternal organization 153 years ago, the United Order of Tents is still thriving in Norfolk, Virginia.

Right beside Norfolk State University sits a senior housing complex bearing the name of the group's co-founder, Annetta M. Lane. Her portrait hangs in the all-purpose room surrounded by the residents who happily call the building home. 

"It's like heaven on earth. We're like a family," said Billy Terry, a resident of the complex.

Taking care of the elderly was one of the original missions of the benevolent organization, when Lane and another former slave, Harriet Taylor, formed the order in 1867, after the Civil War. 

Free Black people had no resources, no power, and no support. It was the United Order of Tents that stepped in with a much-needed helping hand in Norfolk. 

A 1912 article in the Denver, Colorado "Statesman" newspaper describes Lane as a woman who "stood forth as a shelter for thousands of poor and weak of her race and created an ennobling atmosphere about them."

Credit: United Order of Tents
Annetta M. Lane

In 2021, Sherill Christian is the Annetta M. Lane complex property manager and a United Order of Tents member.

"What's amazing to me is how they developed the different tents. That's where we get the name from," Christian explained. "They had tents on this plantation. They had tents for the homeless. They had tents for the orphans, children."

The group worked in secret for its own protection. It sought the help of two abolitionists, J. R. Giddings and Joliffe Union, who believed in their cause in order to get incorporated. 

"There was a lot of fear, even after the slaves were free. Remember, they didn't know where to go. You just don't hand a person freedom," said Lodies Gloston, the president of Southern District 1, which includes Virginia and North Carolina.

In 1894, the organization established the Rest Haven home in Hampton with 16 beds for senior citizens. It operated until 2002. 

The hope is to raise enough money to reopen it for veterans' and senior citizens' care.

Today, the district has more than 700 members that focus on mentoring young people, caring for elderly, providing scholarships, and helping the needy. The group is still headquartered in Norfolk with its home office on Church Street. 

Gloston says the story of Lane's courage is nothing but remarkable and inspiring. 

"Women back in 1867, not only had very little - but were able to come together with their 25 cents or 10 cents, their dues or whatever they could, and ballooned into the organization that it is today."

Buried in her hometown at Calvary Cemetery in Norfolk in 1908, Lane's grave sits beneath a stone angel who seemingly watches over a woman who spent a lifetime watching over others.

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