Odd Ambitions

The Odd Fellow City: The Promise of a Leading Black Town

 

It was billed as the greatest agricultural endeavor by African Americans since Mound Bayou, Mississippi, nearly 400 acres of prime land to be owned and operated by Negroes. The year was 1913; the place, Twiggs County, Georgia; the backers, the Atlanta-based Georgia District Lodge No.18 of The Grand United Order of Odd Fellows (G.U.O.O.F.). According to the advertisements, the Odd Fellow City would boast a post office, cottages, an industrial school and working farm. Lodge members purchased plots, skilled men farmed the land, and visitors from around the county toured the enterprise. Yet, today neither city officials nor community historians in Twiggs County can tell you where the farm was located; indeed, it appears that no one there has heard of the Odd Fellow City*. But for a while, it was the crown jewel of the Odd Fellows of Georgia, a testament to what forward thinking race men could do.

Of all the Negro Odd Fellows lodges, the Georgia District was by far the most successful in attracting members and filling the coffers. According to one historian, under the leadership of Benjamin Jefferson Davis, Sr., district grand secretary, and B.J. Ingram, district grand master, the Order had income of “$20,000 a month…and was worth $750,000 in assets in 1912.” State lodges numbered more than 1,000. In 1913, the Order held the grand opening for the Georgia Odd Fellows headquarters. The massive, $110,000 office building still stands on Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue, once the heart of the city’s African-American business community. Built on time, debt free, and by Order member Robert E. Pharrow, the Odd Fellows headquarters set the standard for African-American construction. National black leader Booker T. Washington remarked of the headquarters: “Negro ambition conceived the vision, Negro brains devised the plans, Negro money paid for the brick and mortar and Negro hands and brains placed the building there. It is worth a trip to Atlanta for any colored man to see this building.” In 1914, the Georgia District dedicated the Odd Fellows Annex, which included a 1,300-seat auditorium, theater, and Roof Garden. Washington gave the opening address, calling the annex and dedication a “proud moment for the Odd Fellows of Georgia and for the people of our race.

The author traveled three times to Jeffersonville, Georgia, between 2003 and 2007 meeting and speaking with life-long residents of the area. Those of the African American community referred the author to Robert Hughes, a former New York City detective, who returned to his native Jeffersonville to retire. Mr. Hughes was elected chief magistrate of Jeffersonville in 2000 and was considered a leader and local historian. He grew up just a few miles from the location of the Odd Fellow Farm. Although Mr. Hughes knew of the area, he had not heard of the Odd Fellow Farm. Additionally, there was no mention in the Twiggs County Citizen newspaper of the Negro Odd Fellows or their plans for a city and a farm in the county. The author also visited Mt. Olive Baptist Church which, according to an April 11, 1914, article in the Atlanta Independent newspaper, was located near a school that the Odd Fellows’ wished moved to the Odd Fellow City. Although a historic school stands on the church grounds, it was built in the 1920s and thus is not the school referenced in the Independent. None of the church members present were familiar with the Odd Fellow City. As Mr. Hughes expressed in a September 7, 2011, telephone interview with the author, “A lot of the old stories about Black farmers are dead. People just don’t talk about the past anymore.”

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