WESTFIELD — Westfield’s oldest Black-ownedorganization,theImproved BenevolentandProtectiveOrderofElks of the World (IBPOE), has been fostering a strong sense of community and encouraging robust civic engagement among its members for the past 100 years. Now, as the organization looks ahead to its upcoming centennial celebration, itsmembersarereflectingback to where it all began.
The first chapter of the IBPOE was established in 1898 by a group of Black men who, despite seeing the value in civic organizations, were not allowed to join White fraternities due to discriminatory segregation laws.
“At the time, there was the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks, which was a White organization, and there were black folks who wanted to join, but that wasn’t allowed in those days,” said WestfieldresidentMaryMorgan,alongtime member of the Daughters of Elks, the group’s female auxiliary organization. “There was a porter on a train who happened to get his hands on a BPOE constitution booklet that outlined how to start a chapter, so he took that and created the IBPOE — the Improved Benevolent OrderofElksoftheWorld.The White group was furious, but they had never copyrighted their materials.There was nothing they could do.”
The Westfield chapter of the IBPOE (known as the Elks Centennial Lodge 400 and Centennial Temple 246) was established in 1923 at the Shady Rest Country Club in Scotch Plains, the oldest African-American-ownedgolfcourse in the country.
In 1924, the newly-formed chapter rentedameetingplaceatHughesHallon Rahway Avenue and purchased a twofamily home at 429 West Broad Street. Thatpropertybecametheorganization’s first lodge in 1930.
Then, in 1954, the town of Westfield, under the leadership of then-mayor H. Emerson Thomas, donated a nine-room home to the Elks, which was moved from its original location on what is now Watterson Street to its current location on West Broad Street.
“I lived across the street at the time. I was just a kid,” said Ms. Morgan, who joined the Daughters in 1967. “But I remember seeing this house come rolling down the street on this big truck, just taking up the whole street — it was the weirdest thing.”
The Centennial Lodge, located at 444 West Broad Street, has served as the organization’s headquarters ever since.
“West Broad Street was part of what they used to call the Black Professional Zone,” said Kimberly Handy, Daughter Ruler (head) of the Westfield Temple. “There were a lot of guys — doctors, lawyers, businessmen — that belonged to the Brothers, and over time, they saved up their money and started building up the property.”
Back then, said Velma Lee, who has been a member of the Daughters since 1963, the lodge became something of an instant landmark in what was already a close-knit community.
“Everybody knew everybody in this neighborhood,”Ms.Leesaid.“Iwatched the ladies, always so put together, come down the street on the way to their meetings. We all wanted to be like them, and most of us joined as soon as we were old enough. They guided us the right way, and we listened to them. What they did back then, we are reaping today. The members, men and women, were very uprightandtheywerefirmwithus.Firm, but very loving.”
Membership at the Centennial Lodge swelled during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Even as the times changed, however, the organization remained committed first and foremost to education, community service and civic duty.
“At the time, there were only so many places we could go, there were only so many groups we could join,” Ms. Morgan, who happens to be Ms. Handy’s mother, said. “That sense of community was always very important. Now, obviously, people are free to belong to whatever organization they choose, which is exactly as it should be, but I think that’s part of the reason why it’s harder for us to get members than it used to be.”
Like many other community groups in the Westfield area, both the Elks and the Daughters have seen their numbers drop off in recent years as members age out or move away. In addition, the lodge, now almost 70 years old, has started to fall prey to the same challenges that ultimately affect any aging building — namely mold, water damage and rot. And while the IPBOE is a registered 501(c)3 non-profit organization, it does not qualify for any kind of tax exemption.
“We pay about $12,000 a year in property taxes,which,forafraternalorganization that doesn’t bring in a lot of money, is amajorchallenge,”saidMs.Handy.“We were told that we had to start doing more in terms of community service in order to qualify for a tax exemption, and we’re trying to do that. But we’re doing things that matter to the community, just like we alwayshave.They’renotbig,flashythings, but they’re still important.”
Duringthepandemic,forexample,the BrothersandtheDaughterscollectedsoup, canned goods and other non-perishable food items to donate to the local food pantry.Theywentdoor-to-doorwithcare packages for senior neighbors, brought baskets of supplies to Westfield’s Police and Fire Departments, and organized a benefitforayoungWestfieldgirlwhohad been diagnosed with cancer. The organization also participates in state- and national- level scholarship programs, fundraisers and events.
“I think there’s a misconception that we’re just a clubhouse, or a meeting place,” Ms. Handy said. “We have never had luck trying to get the downtown to understand that we’re a lot bigger than just some little place over here on Broad Street. There is so much history here, so many years of volunteerism. This organization hasalwaysbeensomethingspecial, and hopefully, we’ll still be adding to the list in another hundred years.”
The IBPOE will host its 100th Anniversary Celebration at 7 p.m. on Saturday, September 30, at The Westwood, located at 438 NorthAvenue, Garwood. Tickets are still available and can be purchased by either calling the Centennial Lodgeat(908)232-6512oremailing Kimberly Handy at email@example.com.
For more information about the IBPOE or the Daughters of Elks, call the lodge at the number listed above or stop by the Centennial Lodge, located at 444 West Broad Street, Westfield.