Mosaic Templars of America: Unique Grave Markers in Bullock County, Alabama

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Family history is such an exhausting and fulfilling endeavor. In order to do a thorough job every rock must be turned over and excavation must be done to exhaust all possible grains of information. The goal is not to just to list names and create family groupings but to breathe life into the individuals as if they were with us today. The struggles they experienced have made an imprint that permeates the years.

Greater Pleasant Grove Cemetery in Union Springs, Bullock County, Alabama is the home to a member of the Mosaic Templars of America (MTA), a fraternal organization organized and incorporated respectively in 1882 and 1883 by two former slaves John Edward Bush and Chester W. Keats in Little Rock, Arkansas. The grave marker of Camilla Mays (03 Jun 1873? – 18 Nov 1922), former wife of General Mays is an example of one who reaped the benefits of her affiliation with a fraternal organization. When I first photographed her gravesite in 2007 the marker was lying on its back having come off of its base which was sinking into the soil. In my effort to correct the situation I found that not only could I not upright it I couldn’t even budge it. This tremendous marker is one of the benefits of MTA membership. Like many fraternal organizations, the Mosaic Templars' burial insurance policies covered funeral expenses for members including the unique limestone markers associated with the organization. Her grave is grouped with other family members forming an eternal neighborhood. It is the only one in this grouping with a heavy stone marker with symbols that match those of the Mosaic Templar. The crest is divided into four quarters. Starting at the top the first quarter contains the letter “M” with a period below it; the second quarter moving clockwise contains the letter “A” followed by a period; the third quarter contains “V.’s”; and the final quarter contains the letter “T” followed by a period. The letters M T A correspond to the words Mosaic Templars of America. The “V’s” are consistent with Julius Caesar’s description of his victories, veni, vidi, vici, translated from Latin roughly meaning, “I came, I saw, I conquered”. This configuration matches the Seal of Mosaic Templars of America. This African American fraternal organization offered illness, death and burial insurance for African Americans when Southern Jim Crow Laws excluded them. It is patterned after Moses’ leadership of the Israelites during biblical times. The organization expanded and grew offering other services to African Americans. Like other organizations they suffered from the backlash of the Great Depression. Many fraternal organizations offered not only services to their members but camaraderie as well. Other fraternal organizations such as the Masons had a connection to a white hierarchy who refused to issue charters to African Americans resulting in them having to find other means to charter their organizations. MTA had no such hierarchy; its organization was created for, run by and administered by African Americans and therefore was able to issue its own charters.

The word fraternity may have its root in the Greek word “frater” meaning brother, in essence, “my brother’s keeper”. MTA’s vast growth and expansion created local chapters for its members. Camilla’s chapter was based in Union Springs as denoted by her marker. Unfortunately the portion of her marker that identifies her chapter has been damaged and is actually missing making the name unclear. This substantial marker is one of the benefits of paid up insurance with MTA.

The organization was established to provide important services such as burial insurance and life insurance to the African-American community. By 1913, the burial insurance policy also included a Vermont marble marker. These markers are still found in cemeteries across Arkansas and other states. As membership grew, the Mosaic Templars expanded its operations to include a newspaper, hospital, and a building and loan association. The organization attracted thousands of members and built a complex of three buildings at the corner of West Ninth Street and Broadway. In July 1930, the Mosaic Templars of America went into receivership. The organization struggled to regain its status, but by the end of the decade it had ceased operations in Arkansas.