Author: Donna Tyler Hollie

a professor of history and chair of the social science division at Sojourner-Douglass College in Baltimore, Maryland

Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers

The Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers was an African American fraternal organization that became the largest and most successful black business enterprise in the United States between 1881 and 1910. William Washington Browne founded and organized the Grand Fountain in Richmond in January 1881. A former slave, veteran of the Union army during the American Civil War (1861–1865), teacher, and Methodist minister, Browne created the Grand Fountain with a renewed purpose and energy out of the languishing Grand United Order of True Reformers, which began in the 1870s in Alabama and Kentucky. Where the original order taught temperance and provided members with sick and death benefits, Browne’s vision expanded into an enterprise that cultivated a growing black middle class by offering services that included a savings bank, a real estate company, a retirement home, and a youth and children’s division that taught discipline, thrift, and business skills. Although the Grand Fountain operated until 1934, it was never the same after 1910, when an embezzlement scandal and a number of large loan defaults caused the bank to close its doors. Despite the organization’s downfall, the order left a powerful legacy because it provided employment and business opportunities to African Americans and helped to establish community leaders and business networks amidst a period of Jim Crow laws and strict racial segregation in Virginia.