This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

The American Woodmen Band of Louisville

01 December 2018

A drum major plays no instrument
yet still performs a special role in any band.
They lead the music and direct the marching
and command the attention of both bandsmen and audience.

With his tall bearskin hat in white fur,
elaborate military style dress coat,
and long signal baton,
this African-American man
strikes a conspicuous position
in the center of his band's photo.

The band's uniforms are more modest
but in a military style popular in the early 20th century.
On the far right is the music director
holding a conductor's baton
and over his shoulder
a satchel for sheet music.

The instrumentation follows  a typical American town band setup
with mostly brass instruments and two clarinets.
One sousaphone covers the bass voice.
Six trombones handle the tenor line,
and likely occupied the band's front rank when marching.
Two mellophones and a euphonium played the alto parts.
and five cornets and trumpets, along with the two clarinets,
covered the treble melodies.

The bass drum tells us who they are
and where they were from.

First Battalion Band 

Louisville, KY

Twenty-one African-American bandsmen stand on the steps
of what looks like a public building.
It's a much faded and cracked photo
in large 8" x 10" format.

Just below the drum major's feet
the photographer has left a embossed logo.

Louisville, KY.

The photographer's location was easy to confirm as a Neighbors' Studio, 1113 West Walnut St. was listed in Louisville's business directories beginning in 1900 . It belonged to Jesse Robert Neighbors, an African-American professional photographer who was a native of Louisville born in 1876. The earliest listing in the city directory was as Neighbors Bros. presumably because Jesse first worked with a brother. But by 1910 it was just Neighbors' Studio.

Jesse R. Neighbors was married to Susie Neighbors and together they had five children, two sons and three daughters. As a black businessman he advertised in Louisville's newspaper for the colored community, The Louisville Leader, and operated his studio for about 30 years until around 1935. It must have provided him some success as he lived in a working class community that was a mix of both black and white families. Jesse Roberts Neighbors died in Louisville on April 4, 1940 at age 63.

Louisville KY Leader
17 March 1923

The UR AW name of the band presented more of a challenge to identify their organization. They obviously belonged to a fraternal type society with the symbols of an axe and maul behind the initials. I recognized them as the emblematic signs of the Woodmen society, but what did the UR and First Battalion stand for?

The answer was found in the Louisville Leader.

Lexington KY Leader
06 October 1928

In the first week of October 1928 the Leader column named Colored Notes announced that Lexington, KY was hosting a convention of the American Woodmen. The opening session would be held at the Pleasant Green Baptist church. Prof. C. C. Trimble, district manager of the American Woodmen of Memphis, TN was in charge if the convention. Mrs. D. L. Clark, captain of the Green Cross Nurses of Lexington was secretary.

 On the Friday evening Dr. T. T. Wendell would deliver an address on "How Can the American Woodmen as a Society Help to Lower the Death Rate in This City and Community?" Sunday afternoon would be a special memorial hour. There was also a street parade starting from Second  and Deweese street, led by a 21 piece American Woodmen band and ladies uniform rank from Louisville.

_ _ _

The original Woodmen society was organized in 1883 in Lyons, IA as the Modern Woodmen of America ostensibly as a non-religious society accepting "Jew and Gentile, the  Catholic and Protestant, the agnostic and the atheist" yet it was only open for white men. Factional disputes in 1890 resulted in the formation of a rival society called the Woodmen of the World, ironically led by Joseph Root, the same man who established the Modern Woodmen, but it too prohibited black membership. Though both Woodmen organizations followed quasi-masonic rituals of fraternal orders like using a tree stump as an altar, carrying axes in parades, and promoting four cardinal virtues - hospitality, service, loyalty and protection, the two versions of Woodmen developed as a way of providing affordable insurance benefits for its members.

The first Modern Woodmen group began with quite restrictive rules for membership despite having no religious affiliation. Only white males between the ages of 18-45 who resided in the 12 "healthiest" states – Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas were accepted. Residents of large cities were excluded, as well as men employed in certain professions such as railway workers, underground miners, gunpowder factory workers, liquor manufacturers, saloon keepers, sailors, and professional baseball players.

In 1901 another rival group was formed in Denver called the American Woodmen that initially started as an imitation of the other white Woodman groups. But early on it was somehow taken over by black members who wanted to create a benevolent society that could provide various life insurance, annuity, and investment products to African-American communities who were then denied coverage by most of the nation's underwriters.

At the beginning of the 20th century black Americans all around the country, not just in the South, faced discrimination and segregation at every level of American society. Organizations like the American Woodmen developed as a way of building a structure for mutual aid that could support and protect black families from financial hardship. But unlike the white Woodmen societies, membership in the AW was open to both men and women. By the 1920s the AW claimed it was the largest fraternal benevolent organization for African-Americans.

Camp Nicholas Biddle 4th District Encampment of
American Woodmen Uniform Ranks
Major General Jno. L. Jones Commanding
July 28 - Aug. 2, 1924
Source: University of Kentucky Library
The initials UR on the drum head stand for Uniform Ranks which was a special sub-set chapter of the American Woodmen. The same term was used by other fraternal societies to describe lodges that dressed in pseudo-military uniforms and enjoyed marching in formation. For example the Knights of Pythias, which had parallel chapters for African-Americans, wore elaborate uniforms with feathered hats, shoulder boards, braids, and swords — lots and lots of swords. In the 19th and early 20th century there was big money to be made selling ceremonial swords and fraternal society regalia.

In the summer of 1924 Louisville hosted the district encampment of the American Woodmen Uniform Ranks. For this convention hundreds of black men and women from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio traveled to Louisville for this event. A panoramic photograph was taken, possibly by Jesse Neighbors, of the assembled American Woodmen Uniform Ranks. I've enlarged two sections of it and improved the contrast.

Seated on the ground in the front center are young boys wearing a kind of scout uniform. Behind them are some female members, maybe they referred to themselves as Woodwomen, but they are proudly wearing a soldier or policeman style dress coat with a sword belted at their side. Behind them is a row of nurses that I believe were called Green Cross nurses. This was an public health service that originated in Europe during the Great War, where women trained in practical nursing to assist wounded soldiers with eating, bathing, and wound dressings in order to free regular nurses for more urgent medical tasks. The Green Cross idea came back to America and was adapted by the American Woodmen as another way to improve health care for the African-American community.

Many fraternal societies called their annual conventions an "encampment", a military term held over from the Civil War. In 1924 the location of this event in Louisville, KY was called the Camp Nicholas Biddle. I can't believe this place was named after Nicholas Biddle (1786 – 1844), a Philadelphia financier who was president of the Second Bank of the United States during the administrations of Presidents Monroe, Quincy Adams, and Jackson. I think it commemorates a former slave named Nicholas Biddle who was credited as being "the first man wounded in the Great American Rebellion, Baltimore, April 18,1861." Born a slave in 1796 Biddle escaped to freedom in Pennsylvania via the Underground Railroad. He may possibly have worked as a servant for the banker Nicholas Biddle, but more likely only adopted the famous man's name. In 1861 Biddle was an orderly for a Union army officer in the Washington Artillery of Pottsville, PA. This unit was part of the first Pennsylvania volunteers who answered the call to defend the nation's capital in 1861. As they traveled to Washington, D.C. they were assaulted in Baltimore by Confederate sympathizers and Nicholas Biddle, who was dressed in a Union uniform, sustained serious wounds. After reaching Washington they were met by President Lincoln who met Biddle and was impressed by his courage. When Biddle died in 1876 he was penniless but veterans of the Washington Artillery and the National Light Infantry raised money for his funeral and burial in a Pottsville cemetery. It's a history very deserving and appropriate for the American Woodmen to honor.

The URAW was led by Major General John L. Jones, who was instrumental in the 1920s in recruiting many Uniform Rank lodges for the American Woodmen. Of course his major general rank was a pseudo-military title of leadership used within the society, though it's possible he may have served in the US Army during WW1 or even in the brief Spanish-American War, but certainly not as a general officer.


On the far left of the photo is another band. This one is identified on the bass drum as the Chattanooga American Woodman No.3 Band. It's smaller than the Louisville band with only 13 musicians. Don't ask me how the snare drummer plays with his drum attached so high on his chest.

{click any photo to enlarge}

4th District Encampment of
American Woodmen Uniform Ranks
July 28 - Aug. 2, 1924
Source: University of Kentucky Library
The full photo shows the American Woodmen posed on bleachers at a Louisville sports field, all dressed in uniforms. There are a great number of swords but no axes, which were a special bit of Woodmen accoutrement. All the Woodmen fraternal societies, black and white, conducted field events in precision drill marching. Google Books offers a manual from 1907 entitled Official Drill and Equipment Regulations: Uniform Rank, Woodmen of the World  which illustrates suitable exercises with axes, all following standard infantry training but without rifles. (If you look very closely in the photo at the insignia on some uniform collars you will see the crossed axe and maul symbols of the Woodmen.)

1907 Official Drill and Equipment Regulations:
Uniform Rank, Woodmen of the World
Source: Google Books

The few reports on this American Woodman event in 1924 don't mention any band from the Louisville Woodmen, so I suspect my photo is from later, perhaps 1928 when the URAW encampment was held in Lexington, KY.

Trying to work out this forgotten history of an obscure group, I wondered if the address of the American Woodmen lodge in Louisville might offer a clue as to where the photo of the band was taken. Sadly time has turned that location into a parking lot for a commercial building. But it sparked a search for other public places mentioned in Louisville's negro press. Perhaps a church? A school? Maybe the YMCA?

It was while doing a virtual stroll in Google maps around Louisville's Chestnut St. Family YMCA that I stumbled on some steps, figuratively speaking, after noticing the globe shaped light posts at the Western Branch Free Public Library on S. 10th and W. Chestnut. The two fixtures are a little different, but the placement on either side of the door is the same. More importantly the doorway, windows and brick work is identical. I'm convinced that this was where the URAW band's photo was taken, and the proof I believe lies in the history of the library.

The building is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places in Louisville, KY, and was once called the Western Colored Branch Library. The first library opened in 1905 using rooms at a nearby private home, but in 1908 a new building was constructed with funds donated by the Scottish businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. His vision for public education created 2,509 Carnegie libraries around the world, with 1,689 built in the United States. In 1908 the Western Colored Branch became the first free public library for African-Americans in the South. It was recently restored in 2012 and remains an important and valuable part of Louisville's African-American community. I suspect that the black musicians of the American Woodmen band took a special interest in this library and that the decision to stand on its steps was a point of pride.

And if we look closely at the sign on the door,
and with a little digital enhancement,
I think the fuzzy letters read

The American Woodmen Uniform Rank peaked in membership in the late 1920s. Tragically it was also a time when the Klu Klux Klan marched enmasse on the streets of Washington and the evil of lynching was still prevalent in many parts of America. In the 1930s the Great Depression put financial burdens on many fraternal benevolent organizations. and in the 1940s another Great War added more anxiety. Then in the 1950s and 60s the Civil Rights movement brought more stress to African-American communities. The nation changed and mutual aid insurance did too. The American Woodmen are no longer active, though some of its resources were taken over by another insurance company.

But what impresses me about this 1920s photo of the URAW band and the history hidden behind it, is learning the importance African-Americans placed on community organizing and mutual aid. The American Woodmen represented an aspiration of a people who valued education and took pride in professionalism. And live music always accompanied their community activities. Even precision marching with an axe.

According to the Wikipedia page on the Assured Life Association, formerly Woodmen of the World, the American Woodmen referred to its members as "neighbors."  It's a very egalitarian term and surely it is no coincidence that Jesse R. Neighbors of Neighbors' Studio in Louisville took the photo. I think it very likely he was wearing his American Woodman uniform when he looked into the camera viewer and snapped the shutter.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
ssshh!  This is a library!


La Nightingail said...

As always, you managed to tie everything up together in a neat package that then tied in with the prompt with a lot of interesting and, in some cases, surprising information along the way! :)

Barbara Rogers said...

I always enjoy your posts...and set aside the time to read through in one sitting. I'm so glad to have learned all these details that you provided about the Woodmen and the musicians, even down to the library steps and it's history as well. I saw parts of a PBS show about the making of the Civil War series, in which was mentioned how a Confederate soldier played beautiful music on a coronet after dark, which was enjoyed by Union and Confederates alike before the battle the next day.

ScotSue said...

I had never heard of American Woodmen before, so,found your detailed post very illuminating - and that was an impressive busby/bearskin hat. You even brought in a library link too!

Molly's Canopy said...

A very moving and historically detailed post! This history makes me appreciate the Grand Army of the Republic even more, since it was integrated from the start welcoming anyone how fought for the Union during the U.S. Civil war -- unlike other fraternal organizations of the day. The Woodmen panorama is a remarkable photo and captures, as you describe, the solidarity and mutual support within the African American community. Excellent that you were able to identify the building where your opening photo was taken. I am always impressed with how much you are able to discover from just a photo or two!

Anonymous said...

Well look what you did there! I should have known you would bring it around to a library! I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about the Woodmen and the history you uncovered.

Unknown said...

I have just acquired some original panoramic photos of this organization.They very interesting collection of antique Black American memrobelia.


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