I promised to tell you about the Astoria Beneficial Club so here’s a short lesson in co-operation and giving back to the community. In 1901, if you were African American, there were few options when enormous financial disasters struck. Insurance for blacks was almost non-existent so ‘beneficial clubs’ were formed. Co-ops, sort of. Members paid into the club and when they had medical expenses or funeral expenses, funds were provided. Of course, others donated as well. I have my great-grandfather, Harris Stilson’s note in his journal “.25 to bury colored man” but organizations like the Astorians were common then. Unlike most, the Astoria Beneficial Society is still providing necessary services in Richmond.

I was blessed to have a very special Astorian as my friend. Dr. Wesley Carter was friend, mentor, and cheerleader to me in my work to preserve, restore, and share the Stilson photography collection. I met Wesley when he was 104 years old but it was hard to prove his age. He lived alone, drove, went to Virginia Union weekly. As the oldest living alumnus of Union, he was revered and accorded special status. He was given that same respect by fellow Astorians so, when he received his free ticket to their annual award meeting, he offered to take me as his “date.” Naturally, I accepted. The picture below is Wesley, the man I called “the best PR man around and the best date I ever had.”

002 Wesley Carter Astorian02

At that dinner, awards were presented to people who do outstanding things in our community, educators, advocates, etc. That’s not new with the Astorians. Their history includes scholarships, donations to local causes, and more. The Bill “Bojangles” Robinson statue is due to their determination to celebrate a Richmond hero and Wesley Carter went to Ohio with the sculptor to bring it here. Did you know why it stands where it does? Bojangles Robinson saw a child nearly hit by a car at that intersection and inquired as to why such a dangerous situation existed. Told that the city wouldn’t pay for a stoplight there, in Jackson Ward, a predominantly-black neighborhood, Robinson donated the funds to provide one. Today, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson tap dances near the intersection of Chamberlayne and Leigh.

During the Civil Rights movement, the Astoria Beneficial Club promoted employment of African Americans by the city, equal pay for Public School teachers, voter registration and rights, and jobs in the Richmond Police Department.

Education has always been a focus of the Astoria Beneficial Club which has given scholarships to deserving black students from its inception. Today, they inspire students to achieve their potential. At that dinner, an award was given to then-school superintendent Dr. Yvonne Brandon who praised them for going into schools that few visit. She stated that the mentor program offered by the Astorians literally changes lives.

Changing lives. Pushing limits. Giving back. To quote from their program for the 110th Anniversary & Awards Celebration, they are “Celebrating a Richm Past: Making a Difference in the Future.” One hundred and fifteen years after they were established, they are still a powerful force for good in Richmond.