A New Discovery About an Old Photo
May 01, 2012
One of the most exciting parts of my curatorial work is discovering new information about objects in the National Heritage Museum’s collection. Recently, I took a closer look at this photo, which the Museum purchased back in 1989. When it was acquired, the image was cataloged as one depicting a group of African American members of the Order of the Eastern Star, the Masonic auxiliary group for female relatives of Freemasons. It has been identified this way in our database ever since.
But, as part of our current photo digitization project (see our post about it), we were able to take a closer look at the photo. The initials on one subject’s collar – “I.U.O.M.” – along with the memory of another James Van Der Zee (1886-1983) photograph that was recently up for auction, made me realize that this group is not Masonic at all. They are undoubtedly members of another fraternal organization, the Independent United Order of Mechanics.
This group is not as well-known as the Odd Fellows, the Elks, the Moose or the Knights of Pythias. In fact, before we purchased an apron (at right) and collar associated with the group in 2007, I had never heard of it and it isn’t listed in my standard reference books. But, now that I am aware of IUOM, it helped me correctly identify this image.
As I explained in a previous post, the Independent United Order of Mechanics formed in England in 1757 as a Friendly Society, a type of mutual benefit society that also served ceremonial and friendship purposes. The IUOM became established in the United States in 1910 and membership is open to men and women, boys and girls, of “high moral and ethical standards, who believe in “A Supreme Being” who rules and governs the Universe.” In this photograph, several of the group’s values are painted on the wall in back: Brotherly Love, Relief, Truth, Secrecy, Fidelity, and Benevolence.
Both this photograph and the one sold at auction were taken by well-known New York photographer James Van Der Zee. Sought out by the famous and not-so-famous alike, Van Der Zee maintained a studio in Harlem starting in the 1920s. In addition to individual portraits, he worked to record middle-class black life in Harlem, including photos like this one of fraternal groups and activities.
Do you recognize the location where this photo was taken? Do you have other photos or regalia associated with the IUOM? If so, leave us a comment below!
Independent United Order of Mechanics Group, 1928, James Van Der Zee (1886-1983), New York City. Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, Special Acquisitions Fund, 89.34.
Independent United Order of Mechanics Apron, ca. 1920, probably American. Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library Purchase, 2007.029.2.
Dear Eric--Many thanks for your comment. Hilary Anderson Stelling, Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library
Posted by: Hilary Anderson Stelling | May 02, 2019 at 05:02 PM
Thank you for the information and for reading the blog. We will keep the location information on file. If you have any information or images about the artifacts on display at your establishment, please do feel free to send them along to info[@]srmml.org.
Posted by: Ymelda Laxton | June 04, 2018 at 03:23 PM
This photograph along with the other van der zee photograph were taken at 101 West 127 street on the 2 floor. How do I know this because I broke down what was left of the stage.
Posted by: Eric curtis | May 26, 2018 at 08:51 PM
This picture was taken at 101 West 127th Street, 2nd Floor. Harlem. NY 10027
We did kept a lot of artifacts that we display in our establishment
Posted by: Alain Dardar | May 25, 2018 at 08:09 PM
Hello: Thanks so much for reading our blog and sharing this link. It's a great photo! Aimee Newell, Director of Collections
Posted by: Aimee Newell | April 10, 2015 at 11:18 AM
Posted by: W.I. | April 09, 2015 at 02:57 PM