The History of Afro-American Elkdom

Throughout the history of Afro-Americans, fraternalism has played a major role in its society.  There has always been a desire for fellowship, association and improved status within the community.  In response to these needs, Afro-Americans organized and participated in fraternal lodges, labor unions, social associations and various groups.  The Afro-American community in Covington, Kentucky was no different but for one exception, that being the birthplace of Elkdom.  This unique place in history had a dubious beginning.

"The Gateway to the South," as Covington. Kentucky was once known, still displayed many characteristics of its southern traditions.  Afro-Americans living during the period belonged to a number of organizations in this city, such as Odd Fellows, Masons, Grand Army of the Republic, and Knights of Pythias.  These organizations were necessary to provide the protection needed in an urban environment.  Being the "Gateway to the South" also meant for Afro-Americans "Gateway to the North." The geographic proximity to Cincinnati, Ohio gave Covington a uniqueness of being both a focal for urban living and a route for northern migration seeking employment in Covington.  Undaunted by the competition for employment in Covington and Cincinnati, Afro-Americans came to the area in large numbers.  The employment requiring skills, controlled by labor unions were either closed to Afro-Americans or segregated and any attempt to gain such jobs was often met with violence.  However, Elkdom was the avenue that would provide benevolence for Afro-Americans.

In the 1860's after the death of one of its members, an organization of actors founded Elkdom in New York City.  The transformation from an actors group to one being a proactive and benevolent society needed a symbol.  They selected the largest species of the deer family in North America as that representative.  The elk was also known as being protective of its females, the young and the week.  But the membership was restricted to white men over the age of 21 years.

F. F. Howard was born April 1860, and raised in Covington, Kentucky.  He was married to Mary L. and lived at 127 East Street in Covington. Arthur J. Riggs, who was born in Shelbyville, Kentucky, lived in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Together, they saw a need to form a fraternal organization for Afro-Americans that would duplicate he existing white Elks.  The problem was obtaining a copy of the ritual and necessary lodge materials.  Arthur J. Riggs, who was a Pullman porter, kept his eyes and ears open.  During a trip south, Riggs obtained a copy of the ritual from a white Elk on board the train.  He brought the ritual back to Cincinnati, had copies made, giving them to B. F. Howard.  B. F. Howard and Arthur Riggs sought legal advice from an attorney concerning the ritual.  After the attorney consulted the Register of Copyrights of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., they learned no Elks' ritual had received a copyright.  To avoid the possibility of infringement , Riggs had the ritual copyrighted as being the proprietor, not the author.  Arthur Riggs and B. F. Howard worked for a number of months rearranging sections of the ritual.  The first Elks lodge assembled November 17, 1898 at the Masonic Hall on George Street in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Now they were on the right track.  But everything for the Elks and Arthur J. Riggs were not running as smooth as it appeared.   The white Elks heard the rumor that the Pullman porter had ""borrowed" an Elk ritual from a traveling man in a Pullman car and had set up an Afro-American Lodge in Cincinnati, and they were furious.  The National Black Monitor gives an account which states: "Riggs was taken from the train on which he was serving as Pullman porter between Cincinnati and New Orleans, when it reached Birmingham,. Alabama.  He was threatened with lynching unless he told where he had secured the copy of the Elks' ritual.  He agree to bring back the ritual on his next trip; instead he changed places with another porter and never went on that trip again." In 1899, Arthur Riggs had to leave the area, moving to Springfield, Ohio, under an assumed name.  Before leaving Cincinnati, Ohio, Arthur Riggs gave the ritual, all the papers and printed material pertaining to the Elks to B. F. Howard, and Covington Kentucky became the headquarters of the lodge.

In June 1899, the first charter for the incorporation of Afro-American Elk Lodge was issued by the State of Ohio.  The Cincinnati Lodge was reorganized under the title of "Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World," with B. F. Howard as Exalted Ruler.  B. F. Howard also sought a charter from Kentucky but was refused because of state segregation and white influence.  Other lodges were established under Howard's leadership in Norfolk, Virginia, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Shreveport, Louisiana, and Natchez, Mississippi, thus laying the foundation for the establishment of a Grand Lodge.  Also, In June 1899, the first Grand Lodge assembled in Cincinnati.  B. F. Howard was elected as Grand Exalted Ruler with a constitution for the Grand Lodge drawn and approved. At this time he had moved from 127 E. 9th Street to 68 East Lynn Street in Covington.

In the early 1900's, Howard was finally permitted to organize a lodge in Covington by the State of Kentucky. That lodge was called Ira Lodge No. 37.   Howard continued to be Grand Exalted Ruler until July 28, 1910 when a new Grand Exalted Ruler was elected.  The new Grand Exalted Ruler was Dr. James E. Mills from Norfolk, Virginia.  B. F. Howard left the organization during this period, but continued his involvement with a new organization called the Fraternal Mutual Benevolent Association.  The organization, located at 621 Central Avenue and later 404 George Street in Cincinnati where he was vice-president.  Fromn1908 to 1914, Howard lived at 60 E. Lynn Street in Covington.  In 1917, he moved to 60E. Lynn to 112 E. Lynn, where he lived until his death on May 4, 1918.

By this time in 1918, the Afro-American Elks and the white Elks had resolved their differences.  At the convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the Grand exalted Ruler of the B.P.O.E. Fred Harper made a recommendation to the membership which states.  "In my opinion. the most dignified and effective course for our Order to pursue in the premises is to refrain from further litigation and to pay no further attention to Negro Elks, except to show them such consideration as may be properly be due an organization which claims to be engaged in benevolent and charitable work among a race which both needs and deserves such service.  At my request the Committee on the Good of the Order has made a careful study of this whole question and have embodied their views in a report which will be made at this session of the Grand Lodge."

Mary L. Howard died April 24, 1943 and is buried along with her husband Benjamin Franklin Howard in Linden Grove Cemetery in Covington, Kentucky.


by Theodore H. H. Harris. This is a paper originally prepared for the Kenton County Historical Society, April 4, 1991.  We've omitted the footnotes and bibliography, but persons interested in those should fine the typescript at K R366.5 H316h in the Covington library.