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Exhibition Join In: Voluntary Assocations in America

A Nation of Joiners

Throughout the history of this nation, the powerful impulses that drove people to unite and to pursue their aims in civic associations have changed and evolved. Some of the most prevalent motives for association of all kinds, such as commitments to political or faith-based action, became the contexts in which Americans created voluntary organizations that could advance their goals for shared purposes.

Voluntary associations are by definition exclusive: forming a society within society is their source of unity and social strength. Generally, the lines that these groups drew to define who can belong and benefit have mirrored the history of gender, class, religious, ethnic, and most of all racial discrimination that is a pervasive part of American history. And as the nation became more diverse and strove to be more inclusive, some associations forcefully opposed those changes. Yet associations have also served as powerful instruments to right fundamental wrongs or obtain justice for those oppressed.

Americans have worked to transform their lives and the lives of their communities with myriad associations, including those for fellowship, mutual aid and benevolence, professionalism, labor, emergency services, reform, and community building. Together these efforts suggest in broad strokes the potential that the people of this country have aspired to fulfill.

Fellowship
Lending Hands, Joining Hands
Uniting at Work
Emergency!
Changing America
Building Communities

Fellowship

In British America, fraternal organizations appeared in the mid-1700s. The colonists almost invariably organized their clubs in a way that excluded women, Native Americans, African Americans, and often members of other non-Protestant denominations. Various organizations over time, however, expanded their membership in selectively more inclusive ways. These associations created a space where White men of different Christian denominations and different social classes could meet and socialize. This mixing of social groups opened up possibilities for networking and leadership development that contributed to the gradual rise of a more democratic society. Likewise, members of excluded groups claimed the practice of creating associations, which has empowered and given collective voice to social minorities across the nation.

Order of Odd Fellows and Grand United Order of Odd Fellows

A. C. Golsh, photographer. African American Man, Member of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, between 1890 and 1900. Gladstone Collection of African American Photographs, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (033.00.00)

Lending Hands, Joining Hands

The desire to lend a hand to those less fortunate is one of the most persistent motivations leading Americans to join clubs and form associations. From the late eighteenth century onward, a variety of benevolent associations, many faith-based, arose to meet such needs as aiding the poor, protecting children, founding orphanages, and providing mutual assistance within diverse communities. The history of these associations reveals who Americans in different communities believed to be worthy of charity and who they believed was not. It also discloses the determination of marginalized communities to enable their own and others to combat poverty, privation, or discrimination. Over time, Americans have worked together to create a vast range of organizations whose efforts to ease the burden of those in need have become a major part of civil society in the country.

El Movimiento Artístico Chicano

Jonas Dovydena (b. 1939), photographer. Wall mural in the predominantly Mexican American Little Village neighborhood, Chicago, Illinois, 1977. Chicago Ethnic Arts Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress (052.00.00)

Uniting at Work

Americans began uniting to improve their working lives in the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries. In the decades before the Civil War, organizations emerged from efforts to raise levels of professional quality, standards, and practices on the one hand; and to protect and improve wages and working conditions on the other. Professional associations distributed information and educational opportunities among their members. They also sought to enhance their business prospects by conferring and controlling the prestige of membership. The trade union movement gained momentum as industrialization transformed the lives of working people in domains such as manufacturing and mining. Although relentless and sometimes violent opposition from employers dogged their victories with repeated defeats, unions and their influence continued to grow until their heyday in the decades after World War II, when their presence across huge sectors of the economy secured the establishment of a prosperous middle class. The collective actions of both types of workplace associations helped obtain security, well-being, and a united sense of duty for vast numbers of Americans.

American Federation of Labor

Letter from Frank Morrison (1859–1949) to Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), March 7, 1913. Woodrow Wilson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (117.00.00)

Emergency!

Colonial and later state governments had few resources to assist victims of catastrophic events. In the face of emergency, people were obliged to take action together for the common good. As early as the middle of the eighteenth century, Americans created volunteer services so that their communities could be prepared in the event of disaster. Working alongside government, Americans have developed an extraordinary range of voluntary groups dedicated to providing relief and assistance to people facing the consequence of war and natural disasters.

U.S. Sanitary Commission

E. (Edward) Mack (1826–1882), composer. “The Sanitary Fair Grand March.” Philadelphia, 1864. Civil War Sheet Music Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (020.00.00)

Changing America

Some of the most consequential associations in American history were created with the aim of achieving fundamental change in our society. While the moral and social views of their membership varied, their sense of mission became a powerful engine for organizing members across the nation. Through time, Americans have created large, intricate networks of organizations dedicated to such social reforms as establishing racial and economic equity, addressing crises of morality and education, and meeting challenges to civil or religious liberties. Others fervently fought or sought to reverse change, regarding it as an unwelcome challenge to a social order based on exclusion. Whether making incremental or sweeping changes, impassioned Americans standing together have continually rewoven parts of the nation’s social fabric.

Settlement Houses/Hull-House

Jane Addams (1860–1935). Twenty Years at Hull-House, with Autobiographical Notes. New York: Macmillan, 1912 (Carrie Chapman Catt’s copy). Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (074.00.00)

Building Communities

Americans organize together in a variety of community, local, and nationwide associations whose most important contributions include creating an opportunity for connection among neighbors. These organizations can seem inconspicuous because they are so close to people’s daily lives. Their history is the story of countless individuals throughout the nation taking the time to grow and sustain forums for meeting the basic human need for neighborly connection, often while fostering local businesses and skills of good citizenship, and shaping the social and cultural forces that influence their children.

The National Parent Teacher Association

The First Board of Managers of the National Congress of Mothers: Helen Lewis, Letitia G. Stevenson, Alice M. Birney, Phoebe A. Hearst, Mrs. William L. Wilson, Frances Benjamin Johnston, Clara B. Finley, Mrs. James H. McGill, Helen Birney, Cora E. Fuller, Mary Louisa Butler and Harriet McLellan, ca. 1905. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (092.00.00)