The Masons Are Still Segregated?

Much of the response to my article from last week on Dan Brown and Freemasonry has focused on the questions of race in the fraternity. As one reader said of his experience with Masonry, “I was told the Freemasons don’t care what color, race or nationality you are.” In fact, a man of any ethnicity can become a Mason if he wants –but not in any lodge he wants. Freemasonry in America has been segregated ever since the first American blacks learned the Masonic mysteries.

In 1775, a group of black Bostonians, led by a forty-year-old former slave named Prince Hall, sought to become Masons. British troops were occupying Boston, and an Irish military lodge initiated Hall and his friends in a ceremony that may not have followed strict Masonic standards. After the departure of British and Irish troops from Boston, the other Masonic lodges refused to accept Prince Hall as a member; undeterred, he founded his own African Lodge, and procured an official charter from the Grand Lodge of London in 1785.

From the 1790s onward, the African Lodge issued charters for more black lodges all over America, giving rise to the African-American, “Prince Hall” branch of Freemasonry, which now has a grand lodge in almost every state. Innovations in Masonic practice, such as the development of the Scottish Rite’s higher degrees, have been borrowed and adapted by Prince Hall Masons. The lodges have recruited much of America’s black intelligentsia, including such luminaries as W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and Thurgood Marshall, as well as artists such as Duke Ellington and Alex Haley.

In recent years, whereas Masonry in general has fallen into decline and growing irrelevance, Prince Hall continues to flourish amongst the rising black middle class. This is surely one reason for the recent change in relations between white and black lodges. For two hundred years, white lodges used Prince Hall’s possibly irregular initiation in 1775 as a pretext for refusing to recognize the legitimacy of Prince Hall Masonry. They denied black Masons the sacred right of visiting their lodges as brothers. Beginning in 1989 and 1990, however, various white grand lodges began voting to extend full or partial recognition to Prince Hall lodges, with Connecticut leading the way. (Maryland Mason Paul Bessel has compiled an excellent page on the Prince Hall recognition controversy.)

Today, the white grand lodges of 39 states and the District of Columbia have extended full recognition, which means visitation rights and some joint ceremonies for certain occasions, as one reader from Connecticut proudly pointed out. Not surprisingly, the ten holdout states are all in the Southeast. Reader Barry Campbell says that he declined to join the Masons in North Carolina in the 1980s after he learned that they were segregated; that state’s lodges remain separate, but North Carolina’s grand lodge became the latest state to extend full recognition to their Prince Hall brethren last year.

The extension of recognition still leaves open the question of whether white and Prince Hall lodges might integrate into a color-blind fraternity. Prince Hall Masons would surely disagree as to whether this would even be a desirable move; their lodges have a history of fostering black unity and advancement, which may be diluted by integration. It will be up to the next generation of Masons to decide how to keep their traditions alive while addressing the racism that has plagued their fraternity for so many years.

Samuel Biagetti is a graduate student and teaching assistant in American history at Columbia, currently researching the Freemasons. He has a bachelor’s degree in history from Brown University.