American fraternal societies have existed since 1700s. New immigrants were usually welcomed as members in these organizations. By the 1890s, however, when millions of new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe began arriving in the United States, a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment and racist attitudes created a bias against allowing new immigrants and African Americans to join the older societies. Prevented from joining established societies like the Freemasons or Knights of Pythias, new immigrants and blacks formed their own.
“Ethnic Fraternal Societies and Mutual Aid” is a cross-curricular lesson that explores the origins, functions, rise and eventual decline of fraternal and self-help organizations among immigrants and African Americans. By studying diversity through the lens of such societies, students will learn how immigrants and African Americans developed alternative social structures that served their social, psychological, and economic needs.
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has a rich archival collection on mutual assistance. Archival sources range from early American mutual assistance organizations, such as the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, to those organized by newly arrived immigrant groups including Italian, Irish, Polish, Russian, and Slovak. In this lesson, students try their hand at the complex task of critical analysis and historical interpretation by using primary sources drawn from HSP’s collection.