True Reformer Building

This building was constructed in 1902 by the United Order of True Reformers, a Richmond-based benevolent society formed in 1881 by the formerly enslaved Rev. William Washington Browne, whose work helped U Street become a communal center for black Washington.

The United Order of True Reformers served as a bank and insurance company that catered to African Americans and was the first major commission of prominent African American architect John A. Lankford. The building is considered one of the first in the United States to be designed, funded, and built by African Americans that the community used as an example to demonstrate the capabilities of their race and offered proof that their united efforts could succeed. The significance of this achievement was magnified by the building’s location in Washington.

From its construction in 1902 until 1911, the United Order of True Reformers used it as a space for their work in assisting the economic and social needs of the city’s black community. In addition to managing a bank and insurance office, the public assistance they offered also included a home for the elderly, multiple stores, a real estate office, a hotel, the publishing of a weekly newspaper, and the maintenance of a farm. In 1911, the Order declared bankruptcy and the building was acquired in 1917 by the Knights of Pythias who used it as a dance hall, gym, and police boys’ club.

Although the organization that built it no longer exists, the True Reformer Building in Washington is a physical representation of the concepts of self-help and racial solidarity that form a continuing theme in black intellectual history. Not only is it associated with a significant institution embodying those goals, its very form is a monument to them.

The resource is a four story rectangular brick building, detailed on both its north (U Street) and east (12th Street) facades. The primary facades are executed in buff brick laid in common bond; secondary facades are in red brick. The first floor is occupied by store fronts and the building is surmounted by a flat roof that slopes south. The structural system appears to be a combination of steel columns and load bearing brick walls. The building dominates its site, which is an area of low-scale commercial and residential buildings. The True Reformer Building is an important, physical reminder of the tireless work done by the African American community in DC to create safe and unifying communal spaces in the face of segregation and prejudice following emancipation.

Its legacy as a center for public outreach continues today. Since 1999, the building has housed the Public Welfare Foundation, a group that supports efforts in social justice and helping people in need.

DC Inventory: September 16, 1987
National Register: January 9, 1989