January 28, 2013 6 Comments
The Knights of Tabor were founded in Independence, Missouri in 1872 by an African-American philanthropist named Moses Dickson. Dickson had long been a member in good standing of the Prince Hall Freemasons (African-American Freemasons).
Although the International Order of Twelve: of Knights and Daughters of Tabor (their official name) was technically founded in 1872 the true history (as alleged by Dickson himself) is much more interesting. Dickson gives his account in his own history of the Knights of Tabor. The Order went through three major evolutions. The first order, the Knights of Liberty were founded in 1846, the second order, the Order of Twelve in 1855 and the Knights of Tabor (which still exists today) in 1872.
Moses Dickson was born free (well, you know…) “…in Ohio, April 5th, 1824.” His whole family died (or something) and he became a barber and traveled to the south when he was sixteen to ply his trade.
“In these travels he saw slavery in all its horrors; he witnessed such scenes of monstrous cruelty as caused his African blood to boil….and he became a life-foe to the slave-owner, the slave-driver and the slave-trader.”
Moses Dickson became committed to ending slavery and he had a plan. In the course of his travels he hand-picked eleven people he could trust and who were like-minded and encouraged them to think on his plan.
They would all convene in St. Louis, Missouri in two years time and set the wheels in motion. On that day, August 11, 1846 the Knights of Liberty were born.
The plan was simple. Eleven of the twelve were supposed to go, one to each state – each of the slave states except Missouri and Texas – and do two very specific things. They were supposed not only to found an aboveground organization called the Order of Twelve but also build up the secret army called the Knights of Liberty.
Dickson writes that he “…was elected chief…” and would “…remain North” in Illinois, to “watch events, and keep the members posted.”
“Organizations were secretly to be made in the Southern States. None but reliable, fearless men were to be enrolled. The organizers were to carefully pick the men that were courageous, patient, temperate, and possessed of sound common sense.”
Then, in exactly ten years the eleven men (and Dickson) would reconvene and the plan would be implemented.
“From the very origin of…the Knights of Liberty…secrecy was impressed on each member. Let not your right hand know what your left hand does; trust no one, and test every man (sic) before he is admitted to membership. A part of the oath was: ‘We can die, but we can’t reveal the name of a member, or make known the organization and its objects.’ It was absolutely a secret organized body. We know of the failure of Nat Turner and others, the abolitionists in the North and East. The under-ground railroad was in good running order, and the Knights of Liberty sent many passengers over the road to freedom.”
Dickson says that, aside from working on the Underground Railroad freeing slaves, the Knights of Liberty created an army that “[s]ilently, like the falling of Autumn leaves…multiplied, until, in 1856, the army of true and trusty men numbered forty-seven thousand….” Not including “…two hundred and forty Knights of Liberty.”
One suspects that number might be a little high.
Not quite ten years later, in August, 1855, the Order of Twelve was officially established as the aboveground arm of the Knights of Liberty. Dickson writes that “[t]he secret work of the Knights of Liberty was not imparted” to the Order of Twelve.
The two orders existed side by side until 1859, the beginning of the Civil War, at which time the militant Knights of Liberty officially disbanded and found new ways to fight. The Order of Twelve persisted and slowly evolved into a charitable organization just like the Odd fellows, the Knights of Columbus or the Freemasons before them.
Dickson writes that the Order of Twelve “was changed” between 1859 and 1872 “from the original warlike order” into the charitable organization called the Knights of Tabor.
The aboveground arm of the Knights of Liberty was still a “warlike order” until 1859. The organization was made up of upstanding citizens who had broken no laws and none of them were ever commissioned or expected to do anything illegal. They existed solely for logistics, to help push policy that would advance the goals of the Knights and to provide a pool from which to choose new recruits. Yet they were still expected to abide by an oath of secrecy. This helped ensure security but, were security ever breached, the authorities would never be able to prove any wrongdoing.
“…[M]embers of the…Order of Twelve have formed one band, united by the strongest ties of friendship, and bound together by solemn obligations,…for the purpose of making a united and effective effort in aiding each member in sickness or distress, to protect and defend each other, to aid and help the widows and orphans of members that died in good standing, [and] to inculcate true morality, that the members of the…Order of Twelve may be an example to the masses of mankind.” (sic)
Members of the Order were to “use every honorable method to advance the cause of education…” and were “…advised to acquire real estate – this makes a man or woman a substantial and reliable citizen.” They were to “[a]void intemperance; cultivate true manhood; [and] eschew immoral and degraded people.” They were expected to be upright “ladies and gentlemen” and to “[l]ive an exemplary life….”
The Order of Twelve was not a political or religious organization. Members were therefore not allowed to discuss religion or politics. This prohibition may have been enacted to avoid conflict between members with different religious or political affiliations, but could just as likely have been to prevent outsiders from learning too much about the opinions of the members.
With the establishment of the Order of Twelve in 1855 the two organizations were now working together seamlessly. It was presumably during this era that most of the Knights’ work was carried out – either helping out with the day to day operations of the Underground Railroad or training soldiers to fight in the coming war.
The problem was, ironically, that the war came. And when it did it wasn’t initiated by the Knights of Liberty but by the Confederate Army. In 1859 when the war finally broke out, the Knights of Liberty disbanded, but the Order of Twelve existed throughout the course of the war and beyond.
Although the history of the Order of Twelve is mostly preserved the secret history of the Knights of Liberty has apparently died. Dickson closes the book on the Knights of Liberty with this:
“The question of giving the history of this organization to the world is one that has had my most earnest thoughts for several years. There are so many families of the old men of renown…that are now living and hold high positions, that they might be injured by revealing the secrets of the Knights of Liberty.”
The only part of this history Dickson is willing to recount are the names of the original twelve who met in St. Louis in 1846.
Then he leaves us these parting words:
“We feel that we have said enough on this subject. If [the Civil War] had not occurred…, the Knights of Liberty would have made public history.”
In their capacity as a charitable organization the Knights of Tabor (founded in 1872) carried on the honorable work of their forebears. From 1878 and on the new order “received and cared for about sixteen thousand men, women and children, who were fleeing southern oppression. The whole North and East was stirred up (sic), and thousands of dollars were received by the Board…to aid the fugitives. This money, with hundreds of large boxes of clothing and provisions that were received, enabled the President of the Board to send the refugees to their destinations comfortably clothed and with ample provisions to last them for several months.”
“Within eighteen years this Order had taken its place and rank with the greatest Colored organizations of the world.”
In the 1940s the Knights of Tabor founded a charitable hospital in the all-black city of Mound Bayou, Mississippi. The staff was comprised entirely of African-Americans including surgeon Theodore Roosevelt Howard. Howard made a name for himself in the Civil Rights movement and was considered a mentor to some other great people including Medgar Evers. In 1971 Howard founded the Push Coalition which later became the Push part in Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/Push Coalition.
These things alone should be enough to earn the Knights of Tabor a big spot on the trophy-shelf of Civil Rights but unfortunately history is slowly forgetting them. Even if you take away the bits about a secret army that clandestinely tried to end slavery the Knights of Tabor are still well worth remembering.