For more than 100 years, a highly secret society of white men called the Knights of Pythias conducted their regular closed meetings here with the same ceremony and rituals as a highly secret society of black men, who also called themselves the Knights of Pythias.

The two groups even had the same motto: "Friendship, Benevolence and Charity."

Yet both swear they never knew about the other, nor did they ever meet doing various charitable works around the city.

Last summer, the white knights had even proudly accepted their first black member into the fold.

Then came the great discovery in the Library of Congress.

George Ntiros, supreme inner guard of the white knights, was doing research in preparation for a celebration of the group's 125th anniversary this year, when he unearthed a reference to the "Knights of Pythias (colored) -- Memphis Tennessee."

A bill collecter by trade, Ntiros soon tracked down the supreme chancellor of the black knights, who turned out to be NAACP Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks.

Hooks put him in touch with the Rev. J. Lee Jefferson Jr., head of the Washington lodge of black knights.

"So I called him," said Ntiros. "He said 'We're the Knights of Pythias.' I said, 'So are we.' "

Two weeks ago, the two groups met at the Odd Fellows Hall on Rhode Island Avenue in Northeast. There, the two grand chancellors, surrounded by their masters of arms and grand secretaries, met for the first time and pondered the prospect of unification.

These, after all, are tough times for Pythians, whose members have dwindled drastically in recent years.

Still, it was an awkward first encounter. Seven solemn black men sat on one side of the room, while 25 feet away, on the other side sat eight white man and their one black knight.

It was a rare open meeting, so neither group sported their gold medallions. They skipped the secret passwords, special handshakes and pledge of allegiance. And there was no standard reading of the ancient Greek story of Damon and Pythias, whose life-saving friendship is the order's symbol and centerpiece.

For there is another story.

The fraternity was formed during the Civil War with the encouragement of President Lincoln. But in 1880, the Knights of Pythias in Memphis didn't want blacks in the lodge any more, Jefferson told the group. It is a story he said he just recently learned himself.

"They wanted a white lodge. So we said, 'If that's they way they want it, beautiful, we'll form a black lodge.' "

Across the country, Pythian lodges split on racial lines. The two groups even argued about who could call themselves the Pythian Knights until 1911, when the Supreme Court ruled they both could.

The white knights prospered. In 1940, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt belonged to the Washington lodge, it claimed 600,000 members. Likewise, in the early 1900s, Washington's black knights were the largest black fraternal organization in the city, said Jefferson.

Somehow, the two groups forget about each other.

"I don't know if nobody knew or if people willfully forgot," said Grand Master of Arms Herb Rosenberg.

Now fraternal knighthood is in trouble. The men in the Odd Fellows Hall were pretty much all the knights left in Washington. Many joined because their father were Pythians. But now their sons won't join, and they can't find other young men to fill the ranks.

"Television killed us," said Ntiros. "It's the same with the Elks and the Masons. Fraternalism is a hard sell."

At the meeting, each knight stood up, gave a short, tentative speech and sat down.

At one point, Jefferson started to walk over to Ross Clemens, grand chancellor of the local white knights, to give him his business card, then stopped short, concerned there might be some rule of the Pythian order to prevent this.

Clemens walked over to Jefferson and took his card.

"I hope we can close the rift once and for all," said Clemens. "We welcome you all as Pythian brothers."

Rosenberg rose in agreement. "Let's not wait for the kids, but start with ourselves."

After the meeting, over doughnuts and soda, the two sets of knights agreed to ask their national leaders for permission to form one lodge and to work out such details as who would be the supreme chancellor of such a combined group.

Steve Siegel, 34, the white knights' youngest member, said his lodge would fall apart if the two didn't unite. "I'd say goodbye," Siegel said. "And some of the older guys would leave, too."

Riding down in the elevator of the Odd Fellows Hall, Siegel whispered to a fellow knight: "We have to work on getting women in next."