Annette Richter is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen: silver hair surrounding a nearly unlined face, with wide, kind eyes. She is, understandably, treated like a celebrity in this hotel banquet hall in Chesapeake, Virginia, full of about 150 black women, and although I am able to briefly introduce myself, I am quickly prevented from saying more by some very politely determined women who encircle her for selfies.
This is the first night of the 150th anniversary celebration for the United Order of Tents, a secret society of black women. Annette Richter is the great-great-granddaughter of Annetta M. Lane, the enslaved woman who founded this order in 1867. I am not sure if you have ever been graciously but firmly pushed out of line by elegantly dressed black senior citizens, but I can tell you the experience is nothing short of affirming. "Excuse me, dear." "Darling, could I just?" they say, and Annette is surrounded, and I realize my chance to talk with her will have to come another day.
The opening lecture at this year's gathering is about the different colors of roses and what they mean. "There is a language to roses," our mistress of ceremonies, Sister Morristine H. Bowman, says carefully into the microphone. "Yellow roses with a red tip means to fall in love over and over again," she explains. As she reads off the different meanings, pairs of women rise from the banquet tables. They glide together to the front of the room, carrying a bouquet of the correctly colored roses, their outfits color-coordinated to match the theme. "Black roses symbolize death," the speaker says, "so don't ever give them unless you know the person well." Two women near our table rise — they are dressed all in black: black blazers, black skirts, and elegant black lace gloves. They produce from somewhere on their person two bouquets of black artificial roses and march triumphantly to the front of the room to take part in the parade of flowers.
One of the women at our table tells us that they pick a different topic each year to discuss. They decide what they want to educate each other on, choose how they will dress, and choreograph how they will enter the hall. When we have heard about all the possible colors of roses — "Blue roses are not found in nature. They are made by man. Therefore, they symbolize all that is impossible, insurmountable" — everyone in the room stands, links hands, and sings.
The women settle back down and the president of this chapter, Lodis Gloston, stands and begins to call out to the members present. "Raise your hand if you are 85 or older," she says, and about six women raise their hands. "Raise your hand if you are 95 or older," she says, and three women keep their hands raised. The South Carolina chapter's oldest member is 106 — Donella Wilson. She was photographed this past November casting her vote for Hillary Clinton. She's not here tonight, but the oldest woman in attendance is Queen Logan, who is 99 years and nine months old. The Tents give each other honorifics: everyone is Sister, but women who contribute to the organization with the most service are called Queens.
Queen Logan wears a literal tiara on her head, as do many of the other Queens, and her sisters are her caretakers on this trip. The women of the Tents applaud her, and Lodis continues speaking. During her speech, though, a woman on the other side of the banquet hall gets up, walks over to the oldest Queen, and hands her a small bundle of cash. The women have taken up a spontaneous collection for their eldest member. "Don't spend it all in one place," she winks, and Queen Logan grins.
This is a moment that exemplifies the spirit of the Tents. It is an organization made up of dozens of chapters all over the South and Northeast, with hundreds of members currently. It was founded on the ideals of freedom, independence, and self-autonomy, but it is also firmly rooted in the practical. The Tents is a massively successful, wonderfully efficient community self-help organization that has operated without outside help for over 150 years. But because it is run by and for black women — black churchwomen — it is largely unknown and in fact was deliberately kept secret for much of its existence.
Annetta M. Lane and Harriet R. Taylor, two black women from Virginia, founded this order in 1867. Annetta was enslaved in Virginia and, according to her family's history, was a nurse on her plantation. This role meant that she moved both among the white enslavers in the main house and among the black people the family enslaved in the fields. Such a role meant she was valuable to the white slavers, and it also meant she could transmit information and care to those enslaved.
She was, in short, a perfect agent for the Underground Railroad, and by most accounts, she was instrumental in helping women escape. Except for one — according to her family's history, her sister was a field hand and their white enslavers sold her. Annetta never knew where to, and she never saw her again. It's unknown how Annetta obtained her freedom, but she lived for nearly 50 years after the end of slavery, guiding this order to stability. Annetta, who was born into slavery, who lost her family members to enslavement, died in a house with sixteen rooms, stained-glass windows, a private carriage, and flush toilets, a place she intended to house her family for generation.
The organization was a Christian benevolent association. During slavery and Reconstruction, black people founded organizations like this — some explicitly religious, some professional, some unaffiliated — to act as both social organizations and powerful places of safety under a hostile, predominantly white government. These organizations served as banks when most white-run institutions refused to trade or secure mortgages for black individuals or institutions. They served as insurance when insurance companies did the same. And almost just as important, they served as affirmation of black personhood, dignity, and independence at a time when the wider world insisted on black inferiority.
These organizations fell out of favor right after the civil-rights movement, when the world of unhindered possibility they worked so hard for seemed within reach. But with recent events, it seems, we need them now more than ever. In the past few years, especially in the past few months since the election, there has been a renewed interest in what it means to politically organize. Every day, my Twitter feed is full of cartoon avatars pleading with unnamed masses to call their senators, to sign this online petition, to donate to this GoFundMe. What strikes me most, when I read these things, is relief and elation that a larger number of people are recognizing that our current social structures are unsustainable and deeply cruel.
But what also surprises me is how many people believe that organizing is something new. How many seem to believe the route of shaming people into political action is effective. How few people seem to talk about community, about joy, about love, when discussing political action.
It is perhaps because my family comes from the political tradition of the black civil-rights movement that these sentiments seem to me to be absolutely necessary for any political movement claiming the mantles of justice and equity. And it is also that tradition that defines love not as a saccharine emotion or a manipulative plea to keep people from acknowledging the very real inequity around them. It is love as it is in the Bible, an always-radical act, an act that makes the lover dangerous, because she dares to acknowledge that which is usually cast aside as worthy.
If your very self is dangerous, how do you keep it safe? For the Tents, the answer lies in secrecy. From the beginning, when they operated as an organization to help women escape slavery, they operated furtively. Later, as they worked to build wealth and economic independence in a segregated world, secrecy was again key. They incorporated under the name of two white lawyers both because it made gaining credentials easier and because those names helped shield the radical work they were doing.
Even today, the Tents operate in secret. There are parts of this conference that I will not be able to attend as an outsider. And the sisters have their "signs and grips" — hand motions and movements to communicate with one another that only the initiated learn. In the banquet hall, as the first night's banquet draws to a close, President Gloston says, "We planned something today where we can have fellowship, laugh, and appreciate each other, because that is the love we send each day."
The banquet is over. The women push back their chairs from the table, begin to gather their things. "If you come later tonight," one of them says, "you'll see us in our African finery. It's what we always wear for that event."
A word on the sartorial brilliance of the Tents. These are women who know how to dress, who understand the importance of a smart outfit, who do not need an essay in material cultures to tell them about the signifiers of class and rank in the buttons on a blazer or the presence or absence of white stockings.
The hallway in the hotel leading to the banquet room is lined with tables where businesses sell their wares. All these businesses are small and black-owned. It is another piece of the Tents' pragmatic activism — a very real example of economic justice. There's a woman who is custom-embroidering tea towels with her portable sewing machine: they are emblazoned with words like "SISTER" and "PREACHER." There's a display of purses — in the Delta and AKA colors — and, of course, the many bags that just have variations of Michelle Obama's beaming face.
The Tents' commitment to practical organizing and their radical use of fashion becomes even more apparent that evening. This event is open to the public, so there are men here, as well as white politicians and leaders who have worked with the Tents on community projects. The biggest and most impressive of these is an affordable-housing complex that the organization owns and runs. The Tents were able to secure a multimillion-dollar contract from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to build affordable apartments for black senior citizens. They also employ some of their own members to run and maintain the complex.
Nearly everyone in the hall, except for the visiting politicians, is in "African" dress. These are truly impressive outfits that put the faux-batik skirt I bought on Fulton Street to shame. The women wear dresses of burnt orange and black and gold, and the men scattered across the audience are wearing purple and blue.
A member stands and delivers the history of the Tents again. She says, "Our membership includes professional women and businesswomen as well as homemakers. This encompasses a wide range and embraces women from all walks of life. Our order does not exclude any woman based on your situation in life, your wealth, or your lack of wealth, prestige, or denomination."
This is unique in terms of black fraternal and sororal organizations. Groups like Jack and Jill and the Urban League were known for being strictly for upper-middle- and upper-class black people, and some of the groups have a history of excluding members based on the darkness of their skin. As an example: according to family lore, my grandmother was the "first dark-skinned" president of the social club she organized in the Boston area — a fact that was told to me when I was younger without irony, with only pride.
In contrast, Tents members are from all social classes — Lodis Gloston was a school principal before she retired; others work in government or real estate, and some are working class. In the past, Tents members were often nurses, another link to the organization's founder, Annetta Lane. And even at this conference, there is a small but vocal group of health-care workers.
This connection to health care is central to the Tents' mission. The speaker continues, "The chief purpose of this organization is to care for the sick, comfort those who are distressed, bury the dead, and provide home for the aged." These are universal concerns, as pressing today as they would have been during the organization's founding in the 1860s. But when you realize the context of that founding, these aims take on poignancy. When a person is enslaved, their access to health care, to a dignified old age, even agency over how they will die, how they will be buried, and how they will be memorialized — all of this is not an option. It took great bravery, great self-assurance, for the founders of this organization to claim these acts for themselves and their loved ones and to set up an institution to ensure that their descendants could do the same.
Most astonishing about the Tents is the fact that about a generation out of slavery, in 1894, they established a rest home for the elderly that they ran continuously, with no outside financial help and with no bankruptcy, for over 100 years, until 2002. In addition, at a certain point in the mid-century, the Tents served as a mortgage house for black families and churches who would not have been able to apply for loans from white banks. The Tents, therefore, literally helped build the institutions and homes of their communities.
The women around me, of course, already know this history and are rightfully proud of it. They applaud when the talk is over. The whole evening is not over until close to midnight, and, we are reminded a few times, there is a 7 a.m. prayer breakfast the following morning. But the women around us are as energetic as ever as the meeting breaks up. I spot, through the crowd, Annette Richter again. But again, she is surrounded by her fans, so I resolve to talk to her another day.
At the prayer breakfast in the hotel conference room, the speaker is a preacher. She takes to the stage and begins quietly. "We pray because we have no other choice," she says, a straightforward explanation of many black people's persistent belief in the church despite centuries of oppression and reversals.
I think about how deceptively simple that statement is, how it gets at the resolve, the space for imagination one needs to survive the very particular experience of systematic oppression. And how so many critiques of faith and Christianity, while holding valid points, rarely provide an understanding of this basic need. "We pray because some of us have children going through it," she says. "We pray because we have grandchildren who may be wayward or addicted. We pray because we got siblings strung out. We pray because we have husbands who are wayward, coworkers who are working against us, and other family members who have fallen by the wayside. We pray because we have no choice but to pray."
The sermon is long and one of the best I've heard in my life. As she slips into the rhythm of testimony, the women around us respond. They are from all different denominations, so their responses are as varied as black faith. Some murmur agreement, some shout, some shake, some cry, a few get up from their seats, run around the room, dance.Those who have caught the spirit are surrounded by the other women, who hold their bodies or let them go, depending on which ensures their dignity.
The sermon ends with this litany of prayer: "Pray until domestic violence ends. Pray until there's liberty and justice for all. Pray until there is a cure for all cancers. Pray until racism ends. Pray until there is health care for the whole universe. Pray until we're all together as one."
And then the preacher takes us to an unexpected place. She says, "Bless the president and bless the vice president. God, keep them, oh, God. Strengthen them. God, touch them in the name of Jesus."
Now, I do not pretend to know how any of these women voted, but given the things we were just asked to pray for, I take this supplication to be, once again, a version of the Tents' radical practicality. I take this to be less wholehearted support for the men who currently hold these offices and more a direct recognition of how much power they hold and how, if God is truly miraculous, we can hope that God will influence even the likes of Trump and Pence to consider justice. The Tents were founded when just as racist, just as money-worshipping men held the Oval Office 150 years ago. I have to assume that the founders then knew the limitations of the imaginations of the men in power but also recognized the political power they held. It is the Christian-preacher equivalent of a crisp "Stay in your lane."
Our last afternoon with the Tents, we are finally able to sit with Annette Lane Harrison Richter, the great-great-granddaughter of Annetta Lane. She has been a member of the Tents "since birth," she tells us. "The very first phone number I ever knew was to the Tents Hall. Because I'd be calling my mother while she was working here."
Annette's grandmother and mother were both dedicated Tents members — her mother worked for the organization for most of her life. The Tents were special to the family, but Annette, like many of the current members, also belongs to other sororal organizations — the Links, Delta Sigma Theta, and, she tells us slyly, the DAMES.
"Who are the DAMES?" Simone asks. "I've never heard of those."
"You haven't because it's just one local group in Washington [DC]. DAMES is an acronym for 'Divas Advocating More Excitement in Society,'" she says, smiling. "You belong to the Tents and whatever and do semi–community work. The DAMES is strictly for fun."
Annette grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, and attended a number of colleges — Oberlin, Hampton Institute, and University of Pittsburgh, among many places. She received a degree in chemistry with minors in math and physics from the University of West Virginia and did graduate work in chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh. She also got degrees in German, Russian, and French from Ohio State, "and I still didn't know what I wanted", she tells us, laughing. She eventually found her way to work in Washington, in the federal government, where she has worked since the 1960s.
Annette is an investigator. She used to scour the backgrounds of potential State Department employees, and now she does the same for potential Border Control workers. She has worked in that capacity for over 50 years, retiring for only a weekend in 1993. By the next workday, she had applied as an independent contractor, which is how she continues to work.
She is 83 years old, has never married or had children, and lives comfortably in DC. She is living a version of black woman joy and independence that very, very few people could have imagined 150 years ago. That some people still can't imagine today. They cannot imagine it, of course, because of their own ignorance, an ignorance so dangerous that it means that those who worked to make this future a reality have had to keep their efforts hidden. Annetta M. Lane imagined something extraordinary in 1867: free and independent black women. And because of her act of imagination, we sit here in the last few hours of daylight, in the building built to her vision, talking with her descendant about all the possibilities to come.
This piece is a dispatch from an ongoing collaboration between the writer Kaitlyn Greenidge, the artist Simone Leigh and the filmmaker Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich.
Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of the novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman.