Thousands of members of the African-American section of the Shriners—the Ancient Egyptian Arabic Order Nobles Mystic Shrine (AEAONMS)—held their annual convention in Phoenix in August 2013. Many people think of groups, like the Shriners, Elks, and, even the Thunderbirds here in Phoenix, as underground, restricted societies with strange uniforms, secret handshakes and submissive women. But these groups, particularly the minority ones, often play an important role in the economy of local communities.
In the case of African-Americans, these organizations provided spiritual, economic, and social support to people, who were historically excluded from white fraternal and philanthropic organizations. The outfits, which are on display during the annual parade at Chase Field this year, vary from long white gowns to bright colored, logoed jackets, with red and white Fez hats, and represent African traditions and/or local chapters.
The AEAONMS have donated almost four million to local charities so far this year. The group works on causes, such as Haiti earthquake relief and diabetes, which are important to the African-American community. Philanthropy is a major draw for many people who join these groups.
Al Smith, who has been a member for 24 years and came to the Phoenix convention from Maryland, said, “I am excited about our ability to help our communities with programs for literacy, homelessness, college scholarships. and other assistance for the underprivileged.”
The AEAONMS conventions can have a major impact on local economies. The Sheraton, the host hotel, and other hotels downtown were sold out during the August convention. The group members also sought out Black businesses, such as restaurants, to patronize while in town.
The members from all over the world represented a wide variety of businesses from start-ups and sole proprietorships to major corporations. The networking opportunities for minority- and women-owned businesses are significant.
The national Order dates back to 1893, and, today includes 35,000 people in over 200 Courts in the US, and over 10 other countries, with a strong women’s auxiliary called Daughters of Isis. “I love meeting people from many different cities and countries,” said Annette Richards, a member of the Daughters, who works in Washington, DC, “We get to share experiences and ideas.”
While to some outsiders, these fraternal organizations may seem like just social networks, they have historically served, and continue to serve, an important role in the economic and philanthropic viability of the Black community.