Black Women’s Equestrian Company K (American Woodmen) — 1920s
George W. Cook Collection, DeGolyer Library, SMU
by Paula Bosse
Above, a photograph of an African American woman holding a pennant which reads “Co. K — Dallas, Texas.” Company K was a women’s equestrian unit of Dallas Camp No. 86, consisting of at least 30 members — it was one of the various “uniformed ranks” of the American Woodmen, a Black fraternal organization. These groups competed in drills and marched in parades, and, from what I gather, they were meant to be seen as something of a symbol of strength, purpose, and resolve. Company K won many drilling contests and was active, from what I can tell, from at least 1922 to at least 1930.
The American Woodmen (not to be confused with the Woodmen of the World, an exclusively white organization) was a national fraternal benefit association which provided loans and insurance coverage to members. It was open to Black men and women. During the 1920s, the Woodmen offices were located at 714 N. Hawkins, at Central (the address was originally 718 N. Hawkins, as seen in the ad below). Members could join various extracurricular “uniform ranks” if they so chose.
The American Woodmen Uniform Ranks were overseen by the national “Commander,” Maj. Gen. John L. Jones (many fraternal organizations borrowed liberally from the military, as seen in their fondness for uniforms, “officer” ranks, precision drilling, etc.). While in Dallas for the Woodmen’s District Encampment in August 1922, Jones told a reporter:
“The American Woodmen in establishing their uniform rank department intended to instill in those who joined it a higher appreciation for the value of the Negro soldier and hero. No other fraternity has thus established that branch of their organization.” (Dallas Express, Aug. 12, 1922)
When uniformed members of these various divisions drilled and paraded — hundreds at a time — it was an impressive, powerful sight. It was good PR, not only for the group selling insurance, but also for Black Americans who rarely had the opportunity to participate in this type of uniformed display of earnest, pillar-of-the-community solidarity. (See a typical group of the “Uniform Ranks” — which also included marching bands and nurses — in a 1924 photo showing the Louisville, Kentucky Camp, here.)
But back to Company K. I haven’t found any photos of them with horses, but I assume they really did ride horses. Below is an ad from January 1922, recruiting men for a Woodmen “cavalry.” I assume there was a similar version of this ad seeking female recruits.
In an early competition at an “encampment” (a meeting of various American Woodmen companies, or “camps”), Company K tied for first place with another Dallas unit, Lone Star Company B. (Read coverage of this huge days-long encampment in the pages of the Black newspaper, The Dallas Express, here — The Dallas Morning News did not mention the event.) The Dallas Encampment was at Riverside Park, a large open space where visitors set up military-style barracks/tents and competed in various military-like precision drills over the course of a few days. Riverside Park was the former Negro Play Park, at what is now Sabine and Denley in Oak Cliff, near the Trinity (it is now, I believe, Eloise Lundy Park). Not only was Riverside Park the site for several encampments and a place where Black families picnicked and gathered for special occasions, it was also the home of Negro League baseball games (these games were so popular among both Black and white Dallasites that a special section for white fans had to be installed during the Jim Crow era, when racial segregation was enforced by law). But back to Company K.
The parade mentioned in the article below is described in the Express article “Woodmen Stage Big Parade” (Aug. 19, 1922). It sounds like it was a pretty big deal.
Black Dispatch (Oklahoma City, OK), Mar. 15, 1923
The incredibly low-resolution photo below was taken at the 1929 Encampment in Denver — it shows the scale of an encampment, with tents visible behind the posed participants. The caption says that Dallas’ Equestrian Co. K won the first prize for women in the drill contest — the prize (which, amazingly, was the same as the first prize for men) was $800, which, in today’s inflation-adjusted money would be about $15,000!
Black Dispatch (OKC), Sept. 5, 1929
In an excerpt from a chatty overview of the women’s drilling groups, Company K spokeswomen say how happy they are to be back in Oklahoma City.
Black Dispatch (Oklahoma City), July 10, 1930
Most fraternal organizations are, as the name would imply, men-only. Yeah, they may have their female “auxiliary” organizations to give the women something to do, but the American Woodmen (Woodpeople?) included women in important roles. And it certainly paid off — the women of Equestrian Company K regularly won competitions and regularly brought the bacon home.
100% of what is contained in this post is information I didn’t know until I set out to discover what “Equestrian Co. K, Dallas, Texas” referred to. As always, it’s exciting to learn about something I had never known about.
Sources & Notes
Top photo — “[Member of African American Women’s Equestrian Contingent, Company K, of Dallas, Texas]” — is from the George W. Cook Dallas/Texas Image Collection, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University; more information on this photo can be found on the SMU Libraries site, here.
There is very little information on the internet about these American Woodmen women’s companies, so I’ve collected the article “Echoes from the Forest — Uniform Rank Department, American Woodmen” (The Black Dispatch, Oklahoma City, July 10, 1930), which lists female personnel for several Dallas companies, including the equestrian company, drill companies, a hospital company, and a nurse company — read the PDF here.
Read about the American Woodmen Benevolent Society (not to be confused with the (white) Woodmen of the World organization) in two very informative and interesting blog posts, here and here.
Read about Black soldiers during World War I in the sort-of related Flashback Dallas post “Black Troops from Dallas, Off to the Great War,” here.
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