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Beneficial Benevolent Society of the Loving Sisters and Brothers of Hampden-Sydney

1961 Classroom in Society Hall (courtesy Ben Bowers, Richmond News-Leader)

1961 Classroom in Society Hall (courtesy Ben Bowers, Richmond News-Leader)

Established in 1843, most likely by free black people, the Beneficial Benevolent Society and Loving Sisters of Worship were mutual benefit societies for the African-American men and women of the Hampden District of Prince Edward County.  The members of these groups also belonged to Mercy Seat Baptist Church, although the societies were not officially affiliated with the church.  The Beneficial Benevolent Society, also known as the Brethren Society, was comprised of men; the Loving Sisters of Worship was the society for women.  The two groups shared the expenses of maintaining their joint fellowship hall but ran their organizations separately.

The members of the Loving Sisters of Worship, about which more is known, worked at a variety of jobs, as laundresses and domestics, and on their own or other’s farms.  In that time, employers did not provide benefits or insurance, and so African Americans joined together to provide for one another.  Members paid induction fees and monthly dues, and that money was paid out as benefits in times of need, when members could not work because of sickness or when members died and a “death claim” was paid to the member’s family.  Members looked after one another when ill, as well as performed funeral rites for their deceased members.

Together with the Brethren Society, the Loving Sisters of Worship also provided social and spiritual opportunities for their community.  The most well-known event was the “Turnout,” an annual parade, fair, and worship service held during the first Saturday in August, the day before the beginning of the Mercy Street Baptist Church revival service.

The fellowship hall also served as an important gathering space for the African-American community.  When the schools closed in Prince Edward County in September 1959, the fellowship hall housed a “training center” for African American children from the surrounding community.  The Prince Edward County Christian Association, led by Rev. L. Francis Griffin, organized these centers with financial support from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.  Former teachers and female community leaders staffed these centers, aimed at providing recreational and educational activities for school-age children.  By May 1960, there were ten centers established around Prince Edward County.

In 1960, Mrs. Julia Anderson and Mrs. Cora Hill taught at the fellowship hall, referred to as the Hampden Sydney Center.  Mrs. Anderson had earned her Master’s Degree in elementary education at Virginia State College for Negroes (now Virginia State University) and had taught in the Prince Edward County schools until they closed.  Mrs. Hill, a graduate of Virginia State, had also taught in the Prince Edward County schools.   Some 69 children attended the training center they led.   In December 1960, a Newsday reporter observed that the Hampden-Sydney center was in a building that had the appearance of a colonial country schoolhouse, “clean and neat and utilitarian.”

The long history of the Brethren Society and the Loving Sisters of Worship demonstrates the important ways in which African Americans built and sustained their community after the Civil War.

Read the original article in the Richmond News Leader Mar 23 1961 (permission granted)