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.