In the middle of East Lexington Street stands a building that sticks out from the rest. Carved into its brick wall is the face of a horned figure looking out over the street. Today, this building houses Fred W. Frank Bail Bonds, but it was once the meeting hall for a chapter of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows.
The Odd Fellows is a male only, non-religious organization that originated in early 1700s London. The fraternity was formed on the basis of social equality, limiting the power of the Catholic Church over the British government, and advocating for civil liberties. In 1819, Thomas Wildey founded the first Odd Fellows organization in America, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF), in Baltimore. However, the group refused to accept any black men who wished to become members or even form separate all-black lodges as part of the IOOF. African American men interested in Odd Fellowship, led by Peter Ogden, instead partnered with the English Grand United Order of Odd Fellows (GUOOF).
The first GUOOF lodge in America was established for the Philomathean Lodge, No. 646 in New York City. Over the following years, the GUOOF became one of the most important all-black mutual aid societies in America. It helped provide its members, and the public in general, with social inclusion and financial aid to cover “the costs of burial, sickness, disability, and widowhood.” Along with this, it was also heavily involved in the early civil rights efforts, especially in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Another notable aspect of the GUOOF is their inclusion of women, which is not seen in many similar fraternities. In 1858, the organization founded the Household of Ruth. This was designed to allow women to be involved in the Order’s practices and public service. Because of the Household of Ruth, both the membership and the public service capabilities of the Order increased.
Relatively little is known about the activities of the Grand Order of Odd Fellows lodge on 214 East Lexington Street. What is known is that, based on the Sanborn Maps of Baltimore, the hall was founded sometime before 1890. There is also mention of them in several articles from the early 1900s by the newspaper The Baltimore Afro-American about the meeting hall and its activities. Among the most important Baltimorean Odd Fellows from the lodge were John H. Murphy Sr., founder of The Baltimore Afro-American; Harry S. Cummings, a lawyer and Baltimore's first black city councilman; and Dr. Edward J. Wheatley, one of the city’s most prominent physicians at the time. However, by 1929 (and possibly earlier) the local GUOOF chose to move their meeting place elsewhere. Today, the only two active Grand United Order of Odd Fellows lodges in Maryland are Union Friendship Lodge #891 in Temple Hill, which is the oldest active GUOOF lodge in America, and Sandy Spring Lodge #6430. These lodges serve as meeting places for multicultural education, discussion, and understanding within their communities.
The research and writing of this article was funded by two grants: one from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority and one from the Baltimore National Heritage Area.