“If your very self is dangerous, how do you keep it safe?”

gatherum

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Secrets of the South. A weekend with the United Order of Tents, a semi-covert organization of black women.—KAITLYN GREENIDGE, Lenny Letter

This is the first night of the 150th anniversary celebration for the United Order of Tents, a secret society of black women. Annette Richter is the great-great-granddaughter of Annetta M. Lane, the enslaved woman who founded this order in 1867.

It is an organization made up of dozens of chapters all over the South and Northeast, with hundreds of members currently. It was founded on the ideals of freedom, independence, and self-autonomy, but it is also firmly rooted in the practical. The Tents is a massively successful, wonderfully efficient community self-help organization that has operated without outside help for over 150 years. But because it is run by and for black women — black churchwomen — it is largely unknown and in fact was deliberately kept secret for much of its existence.

Annetta M. Lane and Harriet R. Taylor, two black women from Virginia, founded this order in 1867. Annetta was enslaved in Virginia and, according to her family’s history, was a nurse on her plantation. This role meant that she moved both among the white enslavers in the main house and among the black people the family enslaved in the fields. Such a role meant she was valuable to the white slavers, and it also meant she could transmit information and care to those enslaved.

She was, in short, a perfect agent for the Underground Railroad, and by most accounts, she was instrumental in helping women escape.

If your very self is dangerous, how do you keep it safe? For the Tents, the answer lies in secrecy. From the beginning, when they operated as an organization to help women escape slavery, they operated furtively. Later, as they worked to build wealth and economic independence in a segregated world, secrecy was again key. They incorporated under the name of two white lawyers both because it made gaining credentials easier and because those names helped shield the radical work they were doing.

Even today, the Tents operate in secret.