'In being together, there was strength' Black Elks hold 94th convention


It was after the Black Elks held their 1938 convention in Baltimore that young Marcus McBride Jr. was inspired to join the fraternal order.

Yesterday the group, formally known as the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World, was back in Baltimore to kick off its 94th annual convention.

Mr. McBride, now a 75-year-old retired welder, was with them. He still is a member of Monumental Lodge No. 3 in the 1500 block of Madison Ave.

"We were segregated and had no place to go. That's why Elks lodges grew," Mr. McBride recalled of the Black Elks of 55 years ago. "We grew spiritually and socially. We had nowhere to go, and we banded together. We found that in being together, there was strength."

The Black Elks, which claim a membership of 450,000 in North America and the Caribbean, will show the strength of their numbers this week on the streets of downtown Baltimore.

Their presence is arresting. Members of lodges (men) and temples (women) dress in white or cream-colored clothes from head to toe. The colors symbolize purity.

Many Elks wear rhinestone-studded fezzes, ceremonial collars, sashes, pins, badges and other regalia to denote their various stations as exalted rulers, esteemed loyal knights, members of the Antlered Guard and so on.

An Elks parade will leave Camden Station at 11 a.m. Tuesday and proceed north on Paca Street and east on Baltimore Street to Charles Street. A drill team competition for youngsters will follow at 2 p.m. at Festival Hall. Both events are open to the public.

More than 20,000 Black Elks, youth group members and their families are expected to visit Baltimore during the convention, which runs through Friday at the Convention Center. This is the order's fourth convention here, with the first in 1918 and the most recent in 1989.

A Baltimore native, Donald P. Wilson, has been the order's grand exalted ruler since 1982. He now divides his time between Philadelphia and the Black Elks' $5.5 million headquarters complex in Winton, N.C. Mr. Wilson is not the group's first Baltimore-born leader. George McMechen, the first graduate of what is now Morgan State University and the first black member of the Baltimore school board, was elected grand exalted ruler in 1919. A city street is named in his honor.

"Do you all just have a good time?" Mr. Wilson said he is often PTC asked. His answer: "No, we serve people less fortunate than we are."

Mr. Wilson said the fraternal group's scholarship programs have "helped educate some of the world's greatest leaders," such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall.

The group has budgeted $120,000 this year to aid students in institutions ranging from Harvard University to Morehouse College to many community colleges, said John H. Goss, a Knoxville, Tenn., volunteer who heads the education department. The group also holds a summer leadership camp for 100 teen-agers at its headquarters.

The order's aging membership tries to appeal to youngsters by running an oratorical contest, staging a beauty and talent pageant, forming drill teams, offering tutoring and organizing other activities, said youth director James K. "Ken" Bland of Hamilton, Ohio. "You have to show that you care," Mr. Bland said. "A lot of young people just exist. We try to show them there's more to life than standing on a street corner."

The future of the Black Elks will rest with younger members such as Roxanne McCray, 35, of Emma Williams Temple No. 358 in Catonsville. She joined the order a couple of years ago and is attending her first national convention.

"I love the closeness we have," said Ms. McCray, while pricing regalia (ceremonial collars $115 and up, fez case $24, white stretch gloves $8.50) in the Convention Center's exhibit hall. "It's like you can always depend on each other if you need each other."

She enjoys taking children to Easter egg hunts and delivering baskets for needy families at Christmas. She also relishes the order's secret rituals and symbols.

"The younger generation will learn from the older generation," Ms. McCray said. "I see myself 30 years from now in their spot, looking at the younger generation. If we as black people can get together, it would mean a lot more power, strength and help for each other."

The Black Elks must hope that at some future convention, members of Roxanne McCray's generation will feel as septuagenarian Marcus McBride did yesterday. He surveyed the sea of white garments in the Convention Center and gave a sigh of satisfaction.

"I couldn't live if I wasn't an Elk," Mr. McBride said.

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