From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

True Reformers, Kentucky

The True Reformers began in 1872 as an affiliated organization for African Americans who were not allowed to become members of the Independent Order of Good Templars in Kentucky. The initiative is said to have come from Colonel John J. Hickman (who was white) of Lexington, KY. Hickman is remembered for his temperance advocacy and leadership in the United States and the Good Templar lodges he organized in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and the Isle of Man. Hickman did not oversee the True Reformers in Kentucky and other southern states; these were independent lodges managed by African Americans. The lodges limped along during the first decade, and several folded.

In 1881, William Washington Browne, a former slave born in Virginia, was elected head of the Grand Fountain of the True Reformers in Virginia, and he is credited with the revival of the True Reformers. He developed the Virginia organization into a successful fraternal insurance society that owned businesses, including a bank and the The Reformer newspaper.

The structure of the Virginia organization was applied to True Reformers in northern cities as well as those located in upper southern states. The True Reformers continued to exist until the early 1930s, around the beginning of the Great Depression. William Browne's success was due to his ability to redirect the True Reformers away from temperance and prohibition to more practical issues that African Americans faced.

The organization was a trend setter for the operation of other African American fraternal organizations, and it impacted the insurance business by redefining premium terms and benefits and how they were handled by a national organization. True Reformers promoted self-help and introduced African Americans in 20 states to business, management, and entrepreneur practices. The True Reformers Hall in Louisville, KY, was located at 822 W. Walnut Street, according to the 1909 city directory.

For more see D. T. Beito, "To advance the "Practice of Thrift and Economy": fraternal societies and social capital, 1890-1920," Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Spring 1999, vol. 29, issue 4, pp. 585-612; "Grand United Order of the True Reformers" in Organizing Black America,, by N. Mjagkij; The Black Lodge in White America, by D. M. Fahey; and Twenty-Five Years History of the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers, 1881-1905, by W. P. Burrell and D. E. Johnson.

For more on Colonel John J. Hickman, see his entry in History of Boone County, Missouri, by the St. Louis Western Historical Company, 1882, pp. 881-883 [available at Google Books].

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“True Reformers, Kentucky,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed July 25, 2024,

Last modified: 2020-08-24 20:05:25