The modern concept of life insurance did not come to the South until after the Civil War, and when it did come, the early Southern life insurance companies did not write policies for African-Americans, the majority of which had only recently been freed from slavery. Instead, African-American men found their needs met by the establishment of many Black fraternal associations and lodges, many of which provided a burial service, perhaps with a brass band or fife and drum band for their dues-paying members. One such organization appeared in Memphis during the 1870’s, an organization known as the Independent Order of Pole Bearers, the name presumably resulting from a misspelling of “pall bearers.” This organization, which featured drummers and occasionally martial parades through the streets of Memphis, spread rapidly, with chapters appearing in rural communities of Shelby County such as Capleville, Bridgewater and Brunswick, then into Fayette County, a number of counties in Mississippi, and even one in Oklahoma. In 1875, the Pole Bearers were so important that white Democratic officials chose to speak at their annual picnic, with Nathan Bedford Forrest choosing to do so, a gracious speech that was published in full in the Memphis newspapers of the day. Unfortunately, the incident has been widely distorted by Forrest defenders in the modern era. The Pole Bearers were not by any stretch a “civil rights organization” as many have claimed. Rather they were a fraternal organization with secret rituals, particularly surrounding the funerals of their members. Nor is it often mentioned that Forrest was probably speaking on behalf of white Democrats who were running for office in Shelby County, and thus was hoping to encourage the Pole Bearers to consider a move to the Democratic Party at a time when almost all Blacks were Republicans.
As time went on, some chapters of the Pole Bearers faded, but the Brunswick, Tennessee chapter remained extremely active, sponsoring an annual picnic during the month of August that was widely attended and which featured fife-and-drum bands, not only from their own organization, but also from similar organizations such as the United Sons and Daughters of Zion, which had chapters throughout Shelby County as well. Drums played a considerable role in the Pole Bearers, being used to summon people to funerals, to announce the death or illness of a member, or as part of the rituals and ceremonies surrounding a funeral. When Ellen Davies-Rogers wrote her excellent history of Arlington, Tennessee The Holy Innocents, she included some diary entries from the diary of Captain Kenneth Garrett, some of which mention the Brunswick Picnic. On Friday, July 28, 1905, he wrote, “Charlie had a holiday-went to a picnic at Brunswick” and on Friday August 2, 1907, Garrett wrote “Roland went to ‘Pole’ Bearers picnic at Brunswick.” The picnic was still going on each summer by 1952, when the Brunswick chapter of the Independent Pole Bearers decided to plat land in their community as a subdivision for Black families to build houses. The resulting community had roads named Independent, Society and Pole, and still exists near the Pole Bearers lodge. At some point between 1967 and 1974, Swedish musicologist Bengt Olsson had traveled across West Tennessee making field recordings, recording Lum Guffin’s United Sons and Daughters of Zion fife and drum band, possibly at the Brunswick Picnic. About this picnic, Olsson described it as “where the members and bands of all the different organizations got together for a feast- barbecued hogs, lamb, chicken, watermelon, drinks….” He further wrote, “Everyone stated that the Brunswick chapter (of the United Sons and Daughters of Zion), No. 6, had the best band, led by Karo and Will Baxter. Though they did not belong to the organization, the (Othar) Broadnax Band played at the Brunswick Picnic every year. They arrived in a wagon pulled by mules, and, as they traveled, played from the wagon, attracting crowds along the way, and by the time they arrived at the picnic site, they had a long line of people following them.”
But the fife-and-drum bands were largely dependent on the social organizations that started them, and those organizations were placed in a precarious situation by the ready availability of life insurance. By 1974, the fife and drum bands no longer appeared at the Brunswick Picnic, and by the 1980’s, there was no longer a picnic at all.
Yet the organization apparently still exists, now known as the Independent Pallbearers Association. A lodge still exists on Brunswick Road in the Brunswick community, near a spot where there was in my youth a baseball field at the intersection with Highway 70. Could this have been the location of the annual picnics?
In Southeastern Shelby County, there is another Pole Bearers’ lodge at 4819 Tchulahoma Road in front of a cemetery that belongs to the organization. Although neither lodge seems to be used any longer, and the charters for the organization’s chapters seem to have all expired, someone is continuing to care for and maintain the cemetery. One wonders if there are any living members of the Independent Order of Pole Bearers- an historic organization which played a significant role in the fife and drum tradition in Shelby and Fayette Counties.
4 Replies to “The Brunswick Picnic and the Independent Order of Pole Bearers”
I am an ethnomusicologist and my great grandmother was a member of the United Sons and Daughters of Zion no.6. This was a wonderful glimpse at a bit of my family history and the community in which they lived. BTW, my mom says yes, you are correct – that was the site of the picnic.
Erica, if you don’t mind me asking, where could I find members of the United Sons and Daughters of Zion to interview? Or members of the Independent Pallbearers (Pole Bearers)? I am particularly interested in the fife-players and drummers, but I want to find out everything I can about the Brunswick Picnics, and hopefully to find pictures of them.
The actual speech which disproves your position on the meeting and why it took place. But I doubt you have the balls to post it on your site without editing it.
Forrest’s speech to the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association July 5, 1875.
“Ladies and Gentlemen I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the southern states. I accept it more particularly as it comes from a colored lady, for if there is any one on God’s earth who loves the ladies I believe it is myself. ( Immense applause and laughter.) I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to elevate every man to depress none. (Applause.) I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. I have not said anything about politics today. I don’t propose to say anything about politics. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office. I did not come here to make you a long speech, although invited to do so by you. I am not much of a speaker, and my business prevented me from preparing myself. I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us. When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment Many things have been said about me which are wrong, and which white and black persons here, who stood by me through the war, can contradict. Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I’ll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand.” (Prolonged applause.)
Rick Johnson, I deal with the speech thoroughly in my Masters’ Thesis. And I quote it verbatim from the Memphis papers of the day as you did. I don’t think my text differs at all from what you have posted. Yet….I stand by the fact that the Independent Pole Bearers was NOT a civil rights organization, or a political organization really at all, despite the founder Thomas Swan having been active in the Republican Party. At the time that the organization invited Nathan Bedford Forrest to speak, its president was a Democrat, Hezekiah Henley, who in 1876 was expelled from the organization. It seems likely that Henley was the instigator of the invitation extended to several ex-Confederates to speak at the organization’s picnic on the Memphis fairgrounds. I argue in my thesis that Forrest perhaps meant every word he said that day. After all, he had expressed outrage at the lynching of 16 Blacks taken from the jail at Trenton in Gibson County during the Gibson County Riots of 1874. But even if he did mean every word, it did Black Tennesseeans no good. Forrest was dead within three years, and Black people were still stripped of their right to vote and hold office. Furthermore, everyone needs to admit that however Forrest may have evolved over time, and however he may have differed with the prevailing Southern attitudes at the end of his life, the facts still show that the Pole Bearers were not a predecessor to the NAACP, and Forrest still opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, so he was no civil rights advocate. At best, he was willing to concede that Blacks should have all of the legal rights of citizenship. If that made him remarkable, that is a sad commentary on the American South.