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.