Elks Lodge

Elks Lodge - Greenwood

During the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, the Elks Hart Lodge No. 640 at this site was one of the most important venues for rhythm and blues in the Delta. Particularly during the segregation era, fraternal organizations such as the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World (the “Black Elks”) were central to African American political, cultural, and social life, and played an important role in the civil rights movement.

The Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks of the World (IBPOEW) was formed in 1898 in Cincinnati, Ohio, by African Americans who were systematically excluded from joining the “white” Elks organization, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (BPOE). By 1899 twelve lodges of the IBPOEW, which became commonly known as the “Black Elks,” were established in eight states, including Mississippi, and in 1902 a female auxiliary group, the Daughters of the IBPOEW was founded. African American railway workers, notably Pullman Porters, were instrumental in the formation of new chapters of the Black Elks, particularly in the South. State presidents of the Mississippi Elks have included Greenwood chapter members Edward V. Cochran, W. J. Bishop, and Bertrand Antoine, all Past Grand Exalted Rulers.

During the segregation era, when most hotels, auditoriums, and halls were off limits to African Americans, the lodges of the Black Elks provided important spaces for social, political, and economic gatherings. Other fraternal organizations that played a similar role included African American chapters of the Masons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, Knights of Columbus, and Shriners. The Black Elks were organized around principles of “Charity, Justice, Brotherly and Sisterly Love and Fidelity,” and were deeply involved in fighting for and educating its members about economic and civil rights. In 1927 the IBPOEW formed a Civil Rights Commission whose work helped establish a legal framework for later protests during the civil rights era. Here in Greenwood, local civil rights activist and Elk member Cleveland Jordan arranged for the Elks hall to be the first meeting place for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) upon their arrival in Greenwood in 1962. Part of SNCC’s voter registration campaign involved the teaching of “freedom songs,” which usually drew from religious traditions but were sometimes based on rhythm & blues hits.

The IBPOEW was the largest of the Black fraternal organizations, and along with chapters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, played an important role in providing venues for touring blues and R&B artists. Members were encouraged to sell tickets to ensure high turnouts. From the 1940s through the ’90s artists performing at the Greenwood lodge included B. B. King, T-Bone Walker, Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown, Percy Mayfield, “Little” Junior Parker, Roy Brown, Ruth Brown, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Mama Thornton, Memphis Slim, Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Little Milton, the Drifters, Clyde McPhatter, Johnny Ace, the Five Royales, Solomon Burke, Brook Benton, Ivory Joe Hunter, Smiley Lewis, Etta James, Charles Brown, Ernie K-Doe, Bobby Rush, Lee “Shot” Williams, and Chick Willis.

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