Parts of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor were draped in purple and white over the Aug. 5 weekend.
The Elks were in town for their Grand Lodge and Grand Temple National Convention. With 500,000 members worldwide, chances are that if you aren’t a member of the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World (IBPOEW), someone in your circle of family and friends is.
Founded in 1898 upon the principles of “charity, justice, brotherly and sisterly love, and fidelity,” the Elks of today say they are proud to uphold a legacy that speaks for itself.
“We’re not outdated,” said Leonard Polk, executive vice-president of the IBPOEW. “There are a lot of issues that we believe are relevant to the Elks of yesteryear and now.”
Polk told the AFRO that the IBPOEW has focused on health and education in recent years, donating $13,000 in support of Alzheimer’s research last year and $15,000 to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in 2015.
This year the organization is focusing on kidney disease and working with the American Cancer Society. Polk said that now is the time for Elks around the world to stand up for their communities.
“We have a current administration that is interested in cutting benefits and services that we, over time, have taken for granted,” Polk said. “We see many governments and cities cutting out after school programs and similar initiatives.”
“We, as the Elks in those communities, can open up our lodges for those tutoring sessions to make a difference in the lives of those children,” he added. “We can have community symposiums for voter registration. We can fill in the gap and provide some of those services.”
Over the years the Elks have proved that they are much more than just a social club with distinct hats, customs, and nomenclature. The Elk’s Annual Oratorical Contest has helped some of Black America’s best and brightest become international symbols of success and power.
Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall used his oratorical scholarship to become a part of the first graduating class from Howard University’s School of Law in 1933. Long before Oprah Winfrey had a talk show she, too, was speaking in front of the Elks for a scholarship, like Dorothy I. Height and Martin Luther King, Jr. did before her. Winfrey used her winnings to attend and graduate from Tennessee State University in 1973.
IPBOEW is not to be confused with the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks of the United States of America (BPOE), which according to information from the Notable Kentucky African American Database, was less than “benevolent” and “protective” when it came to Black people in their organization.
As a result of the country’s racial divide, Arthur James Riggs, a former slave, and Benjamin Franklin Howard formed their own version of the Elks—but not before Riggs and his family were ostracized and run out of town.
Though Riggs and Howard, both Kentucky natives, originally began the organization in Cincinnati for men, Emma Virginia Kelly formed the Daughters of the Elks in 1902. That group would later be recognized as the official women’s auxiliary for the Elks with the creation of Temple No. 1 in Norfolk, Va.
Traveling from Florida to attend this year’s Baltimore convention, Pamela Williams said that becoming an Elk was naturally the next step for her after a childhood of involvement in youth activities and programs. Clad in her “Daughters of the Elks” garb, Williams said the conventions are still very necessary for unified action.
“It’s necessary for us to continue to do this so we can carry out the tradition of what Elkdom stands for: helping our community,” she said.
Williams said she was happy to see “people from the Bahamas, New Mexico, Seattle, Wash., and Maine, all four corners” because “It’s necessary to come together. We need to share what we provide in our communities with everyone else.”
The Elks convention took place at Baltimore’s Hilton Hotel in the Inner Harbor. Aside from the oratorical contest, there were beauty and talent contests—also attached to a scholarship—and screenings for kidney disease.