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Oakland Tours in Focus: Augustus Thompson and the Odd Fellows

by Marcy Breffle, Education Coordinator
Augustus Thompson (1837-1910) was born on a Jackson, Miss., plantation to a free father and a slave mother named Minerva Lee. In 1840, Minerva and her children were willed to a man named Julius Sappho from Madison, Ga. Thompson moved with his mother and siblings to Georgia, while his father remained in Mississippi to avoid enslavement. Educational opportunities were denied to slaves, but Thompson trained as a blacksmith apprentice in Georgia. He became a master smithy after six years. During the Civil War, Thompson was employed by the Confederate Gun Factory Company in Lexington and the Augusta Machine Works in Augusta to make guns for Confederate troops. Freed during the war, Thompson continued to work in Augusta for the next several years.
IMG_0955Thompson married Lorie Ann Jones in 1865.  Motivated by economic opportunities, the couple moved to Atlanta in 1870 and Thompson opened his own blacksmith shop. After the Civil War, Atlanta became a destination for African Americans , as they could find education and employment (although the majority were the lowest-paying jobs in domestic service, personal service, construction, or the railroad). Taking advantage of the newly-enfranchised population of African American voters, Thompson ran for city council from the Third Ward. He lost his bid, but emerged as a local leader in Atlanta’s growing black community.
Around this time, Thompson met James Lowndes from Louisville, Ky. Lowndes was a member of the Order of the Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization. Fraternal organizations had roots in Europe’s guild system, but American orders grew in popularity after the Civil War. Hundreds of orders sprung up after the Civil War and had different social, economic, and cultural requirements. Organizations could be based on political affiliation, religion, profession, or social class. Like the Freemasons and Improved Order of Red Men, the Odd Fellows were just one of several popular organizations.
With the help of Lowndes, Thompson founded the first Odd Fellow lodge for African Americans. The St. James Lodge of African American Odd Fellows had 25 black businessmen and professionals in its first initiation class. Other lodges were later established in Marietta and Dalton. Thompson remained an active member of the lodge through the rest of his life. He died in 1910, just two years before the opening of the iconic Odd Fellows building on Auburn Avenue.
IMG_0908The symbols on Thompson’s headstone reflect his fraternal connections. The three connected rings are a symbol of the Odd Fellows. The anvil atop his grave has a dual meaning, representing Thompson’s occupation as a blacksmith but also symbolizing martyrdom.
You can learn more about Augustus Thompson and fraternal organizations in Atlanta on Sunday’s “Oddfellows, Red Men, Masons, and More: Fraternal Organizations and Oakland” special topic tour.
The tour will leave from Oakland’s Bell Tower Building at 6:30 pm. The tour does not require a reservation and tickets can be purchased at the Visitors Center. This and all of Oakland Cemetery’s weekend guided walking tours are offered for free to Historic Oakland Foundation members.

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