The Elks

This is a replica of a typical Lodge Building as may have
been found in the Black Westindian community in Panama.
You can visit this replica at Mi Pueblito Afro-Antillano in the City of
Here we have a view of the Lodge Meeting Hall
inside the Lodge Building in Mi Pueblito Afro-Antillano.

by Lydia M. Reid

In our aim to explain the social institutions that grew out of the unique culture of the Silver People of Panama we continue to examine the Lodges and Fraternal Orders and especially the manner in which the Canal Zone Black community mirrored the organizations that evolved from the Black Americans. Historically, the Blacks of the Panama Canal Zone and the cities surrounding the Zone mingled and exchanged ideas with their Black American counterparts thus leading to the formation of many organizations and institutions with highly similar goals.

The (Improved) Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World (I.B.P.O.E.W) grew to have a sizable membership within the Black Zonian community and the remnant of the Silver Roll living in the urban centers of Panama. To get to the reasons for their popularity we thought it necessary to publish a brief history we found of this social club since, this is what it is- plain and simple- an American Social Club. We’ve taken the liberty of reprinting the following history from The Secrets of Fraternal Organizations are Revealed, which reveals some facts of the evolution of this fraternal order in America and helps to explain its evolution in the Panama Canal Zone. In our next post we will look a little closer at
the I.B.P.O.E.W..

“The Elks came about because the New York State Legislature passed a law closing saloons on Sundays back in 1866. Hard drinking actors and writers were understandably upset.

A group of thespians took it upon themselves to set up a social club that would allow its members to drink booze on Sundays. And so, this group of actors rented out a room on Fourth Street (and later Broadway) where they felt free to live-it-up.

The society that sprang up around this was initially called The Jolly Corks, and a cork was used to initiate new members into the group. A Jolly Cork had to carry a cork at all times on his person or else he would be forced to pay for a round of drinks.
The idea of getting drunk on a Sunday soon caught on, and the Jolly Corks started to initiate members from outside the theatrical and literary professions. The loyal Corks realized that with this sudden influx of new people, they would need to find a more dignified and respectable sounding name.

As the debate over what to call themselves was raging, a group of Corks went to see some animal heads put on display by P.T. Barnum. They rushed back to the Corks Lodge and informed their boozing buddies “Hey guys! We’ve got it! People will look up to us if we call ourselves THE ELKS!”

An official ELKS pamphlet explains the significance of the name. “The animal from which the Order took its name was chosen because of a number of its attributes were deemed typical of those to be cultivated by members of the fraternity. The elk is a distinctly American animal. It habitually lives in herds. The largest of our native quadrupeds, it is yet fleet of foot and graceful in movement. It is quick and keen of perception; and while it is usually gentle and even timorous, it is strong and valiant in defense of its own.” -from page 7 of WHAT IT MEANS TO BE AN ELK
Actually, the largest native quadruped would be a moose or buffalo, but The Moose have a separate fraternity of their own.

As for the herd mentality, one of the major distinctions of the Elks is their blind patriotism and unconditional love of the United States. Every meeting in an Elks lodge devotes time to honoring the flag, and Flag Day is an important Elks event. At the same time, it is forbidden to discuss politics at Elks meetings. To create an atmosphere of brotherhood among beer guzzling quadrupeds, religion and politics are officially kept out. Remember, good civic virtue means we can all agree to prostrate ourselves before armed serviceman and the flag!

As late as the 1960’s (and much later than that in actual practice) the Elks were officially open only to “Adult members of the Caucasian or White race.” This racism is quite common among fraternal organizations, most of which refused to admit Africans throughout their history (see FREEMASONS, below) The Elks were particularly zealous about maintaining their racial “purity.” Because of their nationalistic orientation, only US. citizens are allowed to become Elks.

In 1898 a man named Alfred E. Riggs organized the first lodge of Negro Elks. The Negro Elks grew to include some 300,000 members, but were never recognized as legitimate by other Elks.

The Elks initiation ceremony is simple, and there is only one degree. Certain aspects of Elk-dom borrow heavily from Masonic tradition, such as the designated “Tyler” who guards the lodge, and the “Lodge of Sorrow” held for a deceased Elk.”

This story continues.

3 responses to “The Elks

  1. I’m the Ohio State Association Historian. I live in Covinton, Kentucky. The Grand Lodge will meet in Cincinnati Ohio this summer. I live about 2 miles from. I plan on visiting Panama this fall.

  2. Thanks for checking in with us Mr. Harris. It would truly be an honor to connect with you when you visit Panama. Will you come to conduct a general meeting of Panama’s Elks? Please keep us informed.