Moses Hall, Charlotte Court House, Virginia.
The Grand United Order of Moses, Inc., was a small fraternal insurance society for black men and women based in rural south-central Virginia. The founder and lifelong leader of the Order of Moses was James Murray Jeffress (1873–1951), who organized the society in 1904 at his birthplace, the village of Charlotte Court House. Jeffress graduated from Hampton Institute in 1894 and Howard University divinity school in 1901. He was ordained a Baptist minister and served as principal of a public school in Charlotte County.
By 1900, white Virginians had disenfranchised blacks and had segregated schooling and public transportation. Jeffress, sometimes called “the Booker Washington of Charlotte County,” was an accommodationist who tried to make life tolerable for his fellow blacks without challenging white racists directly. Fraternal societies such as the Order of Moses offered a modicum of economic security through medical and funeral insurance. They also supplemented the churches as black organizations that whites were willing to tolerate. They were organizations in which African Americans could vote, hold office, and brighten their drab lives with the color and spectacle of regalia and ritual, impressive titles and fancy-dress parades, lodge meetings and funerals.
Even more than in other fraternal societies, a charismatic oligarch dominated the Order of Moses: Murray Jeffress. He depicted the origins of his society in quasiprophetic language. “It was in 1901 that I began having visions repeatedly. These visions consisted of a single blackboard in which was chalked the words: The Grand United Order of Moses. After the third vision, I decided that I would do something about it.” In 1904, the Order of Moses recruited 203 members, and the society received a state charter. A few years later, it acquired Moses Hall as its headquarters. Jeffress took the title “right worshipful grand leader.”
A crisis in the society occurred when a black man, presumably instigated by whites, alleged that the Order of Moses had been organized to keep African Americans from working for white people. A prominent white man squelched this rumor by offering $ 150 for evidence in its support, evidence that never materialized. For his efforts, the Order of Moses made him an honorary member.
Jeffress resented the injustice of segregation and disenfranchisement, but he considered small economic advances the only realistic goals. “Let us teach every boy and girl to build and not tear down. Teach them that being God-fearing, property-owning and debt -paying citizens is greater than being a voter or being on social equality with [a] king.” He encouraged his followers to buy farmland or learn a vocational trade.
Although Jeffress opposed urban migration, many rural black Virginians moved to northern cities. As a result, Order of Moses lodges appeared outside Virginia, mostly in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Northern lodges unsuccessfully asked for the headquarters to be moved to Philadelphia, which they regarded as more convenient than Charlotte Court House, which at the time of Jeffress’s death had only 250 residents and neither a railroad station nor a bus stop.
The strength and the weakness of the Order of Moses was its identification with Charlotte Court House and Charlotte County. The order helped establish a high school there for black youth, provided bus transportation for the students, constructed and equipped a hospital building, and provided electrical service for the village. The order owned an auditorium that could accommodate four hundred people, an office building, and apartments for black schoolteachers. The society also owned three hundred acres of farmland worked by black sharecroppers.
As leader of the Order of Moses, Murray Jeffress became a respected figure in African American life. He was elected first vice president of the Negro Organization Society and president of the Federation of Negro Fraternal Organizations. He served a number of Baptist churches as pastor.
At the time of Jeffress’s death in 1951, the Order of Moses claimed a little more than five thousand members. Apparently, his son Wilson became the society’s new leader. How long it continued to operate is unknown. In any event, the little Order of Moses had survived into the post—World War II era, an achievement that few better-known African American fraternal societies equaled.
— Adapted slightly from Organizing Black America: An Encyclopedia of African American Associations, Nina Mjagkij, ed.
My grandfather’s older brother, Jasper Maxwell Allen (1904-1959), married J. Murray Jeffress’ daughter Lena P. Jeffress, settled in Charlotte Court House, and opened a dental office in Moses Hall.
Photographs by Lisa Y. Henderson, July 2012.