“A leading principle of our Order is its firm hope in the future…looking forward to the time when love, not fear, shall rule the human breast…the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows makes no discrimination.” –Charles H. Brooks
Born in Paducah in 1859, Charles H. Brooks grew to embody the very definitions of brilliance and success. He began teaching at age seventeen, and by the age of twenty-three had been appointed the principal of the Runkle Institute, one of the earliest state supported high schools for African-Americans in Kentucky. Seeking bigger challenges and opportunities, Brooks left Paducah in 1889 and moved to Washington D.C. to work in the Pension Bureau Office. While in D.C., he not only completed his degree in bookkeeping, but also entered law school at Howard University. Such was the respect for his character, that upon graduation from law school in 1892 he gained admission to practice before the Supreme Court of the District.
Teacher, principal, accountant, and lawyer all by the age of thirty-three…we could stop there and declare Brooks an enviably accomplished man. Not to mention the fact that he did all this while sporting a dazzling set of “friendly muttonchops” (the term for when your mustache connects to your sideburns).
Brooks’ success wouldn’t stop there, however. He’d ultimately find his greatest impact in his next venture, which wasn’t as a teacher or lawyer, but as an advocate and author for the Odd Fellows.
An Odd Fellow, you say? What is an Odd Fellow?
Essentially, the Odd Fellows was a club, a mutual aid society that focused on kindness, hard work, and charity. Whatever you call them—fraternal orders, benevolent organizations, secret societies—these clubs were all the rage in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of them, like the Masons and Elks, are still around today, but a quick look in a Paducah City Directory from the 1880’s shows there used to be dozens more, including the United Order of the Golden Cross, the Independent Oder of B’Nai B’rith, the Knights of Pythias, and the Grand Army of the Republic.
The Odd Fellows got its start in England, and like any self-respecting social club, tried to trace its origins back to the Knights Templar and the Goths of the 5th century. The truth is that no one is quite sure how Odd Fellows got its start. Further, no one is quite sure where the curious name came from, though the most likely explanation is that because the members of Odd Fellows were not required to belong to any particular career or creed or faith, they came from many walks of life. Therefore, they are a gathering of “odd fellows.”
Despite those professions of inclusion, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows in the United States did not welcome non-white members into its organization. Thus, in 1843, a West Indian immigrant named Peter Ogden founded a new inclusive branch called the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, after a charter in England that was inclusive to men of all races.
This is the order of Odd Fellows that Brooks first joined while teaching in Paducah and a membership that he maintained through all his subsequent careers. Brooks’s intelligence, civic mindedness, and social compassion gained such renown in the organization, that following his graduation from law school, he was unanimously elected to serve as the Grand Secretary of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. He left his job as a lawyer to work for the Odd Fellows, and used his position to spread the word about his beloved organization.
In his writings about the official mission of the G.U.O.O.F., Brooks penned these beautiful words: “The true Odd Fellow, he is out in the field, gathering the ready harvest; in the workshop, laying his strong hand to the anvil, the loom, and the forge; in the counting house, employed in the pursuits of professional labor. He is at home, fulfilling the duties of parent, husband; gladdening the hearth and the board by the virtues of the social spirit. He is by the bed of sickness, wiping the moist brow and cooling the parched lips; he is in sorrowful places ministering to poverty, comforting affliction, and relieving distress.”
Those words make you want to sign up, don’t they?
As the primary spokesman for a prominent and predominantly African-American organization, Brooks also became an early voice for civil rights in a period of time not too far removed from Emancipation. In a book Brooks wrote called “The Official History and Manual of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in America,” he chronicled the establishment of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in opposition to blatant racism. With these powerful words, Brooks heralded the wisdom and conviction of founder Peter Odgen: “He [Ogden] thought it folly, a waste of time, if not self-respect, to stand, hat in hand, at the foot-stool of a class of men who, professing benevolence and fraternity, were most narrow and contracted, a class of men who judge another, not by principle and character, but by the shape of the nose, the curl of the hair, and the hue of the skin.”
Brooks served the Odd Fellows for ten years, and followed that career by operating his own real estate and insurance firm in Philadelphia. He stayed socially active with organizations like the National Negro Business League and the Reliable Mutual Aid and Improvement Society. Brooks died in 1940 at the age of 81 and is buried beside his wife in Oak Grove Cemetery, back home in Paducah.
To learn more about Charles H. Brooks or other great Paducahans, visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library. And if you like this post, make sure to “Like” our Facebook page so you have access to more stories.