African American Fraternal Groups

In the Spirit of Unity: The Meaning of Prince Hall Americanism Day

The exact date of the first Prince Hall Day celebration referred to in this program from the collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library is difficult to pinpoint. An uncorroborated article in the Los Angeles Sentinel provides the date 1808, while a gap in the primary source material until 1927 suggests the origin of this African American celebration may have taken place well after the death of Hall in 1808. The journey to discover the true meaning of this document and day underscores Prince Hall Freemasonry's commitment to being a unifying force in American society.

A2022_001_002DS001Prince Hall Americanism Day proclamation and program, 1964

"As the Christian has a revival, the Moslem [sic] has a pilgrimage to Mecca, so do Prince Hall Masons have revivals, and they are called Prince Hall Americanism Day, celebrated on or as close to September 12th each year. It is a time for the Prince Hall Mason to take stock of his life, renew his faith in God, Country and Fraternity, which will include his neighbor. It is a time to renew his faith in God, his patriotism to his country and his duty to   mankind. It is in the truest sense a Masonic Revival."The Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Arkansas, 2021.

During the 1950s, the theme of “Americanism” was expanded upon by the Grand Masters Conference of Prince Hall Masons in response to the Red Scare of the '50s. The Grand Masters, who also served as leaders within the African American Community, understood the disenfranchisement of African Americans within American society, and saw this moment in history as an opportunity to bring people together in a common cause. "Masonry and Americanism," they stated, "will embrace, substantially, those spiritual drives of our Reverend Brother Prince Hall, who along with his contemporaries [Washington and the Founding Fathers]. served as a founding father of our American Idealism."

It was in this spirit, in the spirit of Prince Hall Freemasonry and of unity, that on Wednesday, September 7, 2022, the two Sovereign Grand Commanders of the Supreme Councils (white) and the two Sovereign Grand Commanders of the United Supreme Councils (black) of the United States met at Washington, D.C., in the House of the Temple to sign a statement of unity. This document recognized the other bodies as the “sole and legitimate conservators” of Scottish Rite Freemasonry in the United States and pledged to “support one another in the cause of Scottish Rite Freemasonry” and to serve as example of unity to the world-at-large.  

Scan_2022-10-04_18-39-54Statement of Unity
proclamation, September 7,2022
 

Do you have any information regarding the origins or history of Prince Hall Day? Please free to contact us or to comment about this topic in the comments section below.


Captions

Prince Hall Americanism Day proclamation and program, 1964. Peter B. C. Brown, Jr., Prince Hall Masonic collection, 1964-1989. Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, MA 210.001.

Statement of Unity proclamation, September 7, 2022. Records and Correspondence of the Supreme Council, NMJ. Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, SC 300.002.


References

Arizona Sun. “Masons to Observe Prince Hall Day.” September 16, 1955: 7. Accessed: 9 September 2022. <Chronicling America>

Boston Globe. “Auxiliary is Formed : Colored Women Organize to Assist Prince Hall Grand Lodge Centennial Committee.” September 26, 1907: 10. Accessed: 9 September 2022. <ProQuest>

Bridgeport Post. “Prince Hall Lodges of Masons to Hail Founder with State Celebration by 1,000 Members here Sept. 10.” August 23, 1961: 20. Accessed: 9 September 2022. <Newspapers.com>

Evening Review. “Prince Hall Day Program.” September 11, 1929: 14. Accessed: 9 September 2022. <Chronicling America>

Freemasons. Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Arkansas. “Why Masons Celebrate Prince Hall Day,” 2021, Accessed: 9 September 2022. https://www.mwphglar.com/list-item-title

Freemasons. Prince Hall Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia. n.d. Protocol Manual. Accessed: 9 September 2022. https://cdn.website-editor.net/13c5a24262424017aa80012c701f5962/files/uploaded/ProtocolManual%2520%25281%2529.pdf

Hartford Courant. “1,000 Masons to Note Prince Hall Day Sunday.” September 4, 1962; 33. Accessed: 9 September 2022. <Newspapers.com>

Herbert, Archille W. “Prince Hall Day Address.” Prince Hall Masonic Digest 7, no. 1 (1958) : 3-6. Accessed: 9 September 2022. https://oakland.access.preservica.com/?s=Prince+Hall+Masonic+Digest

Jackson Advocate. “Prince Hall Masons of Louisiana Hold 94th Annual Session.” June 29, 1957: 6. Accessed: 9 September 2022. <Chronicling America>

Jackson Advocate. “Prince Hall Message Made Part of Congressional Record.” September 19, 1959: 4. Accessed: 9 September 2022. <Chronicling America>

Los Angeles Sentinel. “City Proclaims Prince Hall Day.” September 22, 1966, C2.

News-Herald. “A.M.E. Zion.” September 29, 1928. Accessed: 9 September 2022. <Chronicling America>

Parmer, Burrell D. “In Remembrance of Prince Hall on the Eve of Prince Hall Americanism Day.” The Texas Prince Hall Freemason II, no. 5 (Winter 2011): 54. Accessed: 9 September 2022. https://www.mwphglotx.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/TPHFM-Volume-2-Issue-5-Winter-2011.pdf

Pittsburgh Courier. “Attention Fraters.” March 12, 1927: 9. Accessed: 9 September 2022. <Newspapers.com>

“Prince Hall Americanism Day Across Illinois: In Salute of the Father of African American Freemasonry in America and Beyond.” Prince Hall Masonic Journal. Fall 2013-Winter 2014. 9. Accessed: 9 September 2022. https://mwphglil.com/2013-14Winter.pdf

Shreveport Journal. “Negro Masons Will Observe Prince Hall Day.” September 14, 1951: 24. Accessed: 9 September 2022. <Chronicling America>

Weekly Town Talk. “Prince Hall Day Set.” September 13, 1952: 5. Accessed: 9 September 2022. <Chronicling America>

Wesley, Charles H. History of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of the State of Ohio, 1849-1960: An Epoch in American Fraternalism. Wilberforce, Ohio: Central State College Press, 1961.

Wesley, Charles H. Prince Hall: Life and Legacy. Washington, D.C.: United Supreme Council Southern Jurisdiction, Prince Hall Affiliation, 1977.

 


New to the Collection: Pyramid Court Daughters

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Members of Pyramid Court No. 17, 1960s. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, 2022.008.4.

In this photograph, new to the collection in 2022, a group of women wearing white dresses and either white fezzes or a crown poses for a photo with a man in a suit wearing a darker fez. This image features members of a women’s auxiliary group of Prince Hall Shriners, the Ancient Egyptian Arabic Order Nobles Mystic Shrine of North and South America and Its Jurisdictions, Inc. in Philadelphia in the 1960s. Historically Black fraternal groups in the United States have a fascinating history and objects like this photograph help us better understand it.

Based on organization proceedings and area newspapers, this photo appears to show members of Pyramid Court No. 17, Imperial Court Auxiliary, A.E.A.O.N.M.S., Philadelphia along with one member of Pyramid Temple No. 1, A.E.A.O.N.M.S., also of Philadelphia. The A.E.A.O.N.M.S. was founded in 1893 in Chicago as a charitable, benevolent, fraternal, and social organization, dedicated to the welfare and extension of Prince Hall Freemasonry. Its women’s auxiliary was founded in 1910 in Detroit. The latter group was established at the behest of a committee headed by Hannah Brown, Esther Wilson, and Lucy Blackburn, wives of Prince Hall Shriners from Maryland, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C. These women and others had already created eight “courts” (similar to Shrine Temples or Masonic lodges) for female relatives of A.E.A.O.N.M.S. members. In 1909, they requested an official “Grand Court” to oversee the activities of the local groups.

This international organization, then known as the Imperial Grand Court of the Daughters of Isis, is now called the Imperial Court. The organization boasts more than nine thousand members that meet in more than two hundred courts throughout the United States, as well as Canada, Bahamas, U.S. Virgin Islands, Korea and Western Europe. Members are known as Daughters.

Their regalia includes ceremonial collars worn with white dresses, shoes, and gloves, along with white fezzes or crowns. Decorated with embroidery and/or rhinestones, these fezzes bear the name of the owner’s court and a profile of the Egyptian goddess Isis. When a Daughter serves as Imperial Commandress, the presiding officer of a court, she wears a crown in place of a fez. In this photograph, since a woman in the center of the group wears a crown, she was likely the Imperial Commandress of Pyramid Court No. 17 when the photo was taken.

In their analysis of African American fraternal groups over a period of around one hundred fifty years, social scientists Theda Skocpol and Jennifer Lynn Oser found that “black women played an unusually strong role in African American fraternal federations.” The Imperial Court is an excellent example of Black women leading fraternal groups. It exists because women who were already organizing local courts applied for official recognition from A.E.A.O.N.M.S. The auxiliary’s schedule of meetings, fundraising events, and annual sessions is very similar to that of the brother organization.

In the past and today, the women’s and men’s groups under the umbrella of the A.E.A.O.N.M.S. gather together at an annual joint session. Daughters of the Imperial Court Auxiliary and Nobles of A.E.A.O.N.M.S. work together at all levels to accomplish the charitable, social, and Masonic goals of Prince Hall Shriners.

If you know of or have any materials related to the A.E.A.O.N.M.S. or its women’s auxiliary, please let us know by writing in the comments section below.

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References and Further Reading:


The Challenges of Research and Making the Connection

The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library staff gets satisfaction from the rewards of research, the joy of discovering or rediscovering something that brings context to a document--and consequently to lives of others. In fact, in many cases, we gain a greater understanding of our own lives, as well as the lives of others, through our research. However, when we fail to establish the context or history of a document, that same process can be extremely frustrating.

A2022_005_001DSPhilomathian Lodge lady's invitation ticket, 1859 December 29.
 

The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library recently acquired the object pictured here. It reads: "Citizens' Grand Dress Ball, to be given to Philomathian Lodge, Thursday Evening, Dec. 29, 1859. Lady's Invitation." We are not certain who issued the invitation (which may also have served as an entrance ticket to the ball), but we believe that it may be have been Philomathian Lodge of New York City, the first Grand United Order of Odd Fellows lodge in America and an African American branch of the Odd Fellows.

As Professor Hermina G.B. Anghelescu explains in her article “A Bit of History in the Library Attic,” the information contained in ephemeral items, such as tickets, “is often not enough” to establish the context or history behind an item, and researchers may “need to draw from other sources” to establish a link. In short, this small invitation was designed to be used for an event. It was not necessarily designed for future observers, but to be used in the moment. Because of that, some information, such as the creator or place of creation, was often not included because it was unnecessary for the purpose of the object and to the woman who likely carried this with her to a Thursday evening ball in 1859.

Do you have any information regarding the history of this lady’s invitation or of Philomathian Lodge? Please free to contact us or to comment about this topic in the comments section below.

 


Captions

Philomathian Lodge lady's invitation ticket, 1859 December 29. Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, FR 430.017.


References

Anghelesc, Hermina G. B. “A Bit of History in the Library Attic : Challenges of. Ephemera Research.” Collection Management 25/4 (2001), pp. 61-75.

 

 


Digital Collections Highlight: African American Freemasonry & Fraternalism

A2018_006_001 PH GLNY 1962 Masonic certThe Van Gorden-Williams Digital Collections website features nearly a thousand documents in twelve different collections. This February, we’re highlighting the African American Freemasonry & Fraternalism collection.

This collection brings together a number of documents related to historically Black fraternal organizations, including many related to Prince Hall Freemasonry.

A leading citizen in Boston’s eighteenth-century Black community, Prince Hall (1738-1807) was an abolitionist who petitioned the Massachusetts’ legislature to end slavery, and a Methodist who campaigned for schools to educate the African-American children of Boston. Hall was a leather dresser by trade who, in 1777, supplied drum heads to the Boston Regiment of Artillery. Drawn to Freemasonry’s values and opportunities, Hall, a former slave, tried to join Boston’s Masonic lodges in the early 1770s, but was denied membership.

African American men’s participation in Freemasonry is generally traced back to the March 6, 1775 initiation of Prince Hall and fourteen other Black men in Lodge No. 441, a British military lodge attached to the 38th Regiment of Foot. A year later, as the Siege of Boston was ending, the military lodge that had initiated Hall was evacuating Boston, but before they left, the lodge granted Prince Hall and his brethren authority to meet as a lodge, bury their dead, and march in processions for St. John’s Day. However, they were not given authority to confer degrees or perform any other “work.” With this authority granted to them, Prince Hall and his brethren organized as African Lodge No. 1 on July 3, 1775, with Hall as Master.

In order to become a fully functioning lodge that could confer degrees, African Lodge No. 1 needed to be chartered. Unable to obtain a charter from a Grand Lodge in the United States, they appealed to the Grand Lodge of England and were granted a charter on September 29, 1784 as African Lodge No. 459. Hall then founded lodges in Philadelphia and Providence. These three lodges eventually joined to form African Grand Lodge. It wasn’t until 1847, forty years after Prince Hall's death, that members of African Grand Lodge changed their name to Prince Hall Grand Lodge, in honor of their founder. Nearly 250 years after Prince Hall was initiated, Prince Hall Freemasonry continues to thrive today.

Be sure to check out previous blog posts which highlight documents from this collection.

Freemasonry and the First Black-Owned TV Station in the United States

Digital Collections Highlight: Theodore Gleghorn's 1921 Master Mason certificate

Pictured above:

Prince Hall Master Mason certificate issued to Russell L. Randolph, 1962. Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, Lexington, Massachusetts. MA 007. Museum Purchase.


Celebrating Prince Hall Freemasonry

In the spotlight this month at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library are two souvenirs from a 1950 Boston gathering that commemorated a 175th anniversary in Prince Hall Freemasonry. The mementos shown here—a colorful felt pennant and a miniature brass trowel, both currently on view in our exhibition, The Masonic Hall of Fame: Extraordinary Freemasons in American History—are but small reminders of an important development in American Masonic history.

GL2004_3395DP1FGPennant for Prince Hall Pilgrimage to Boston, 1950. United States, Loaned by the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts, GL2004.3395. Photograph by Frank E. Graham.

In 1775, Prince Hall, a leader in Boston’s African American community, sought to join one of the city’s Masonic lodges but was denied membership on account of his race. Seeking an alternative path to becoming Freemasons, Hall and 14 other African American men joined a Masonic lodge, Lodge No. 441, attached to a British regiment stationed in Boston. Hall and his brethren petitioned the Grand Lodge of England for a charter for a new lodge of their own; in 1784, the Grand Lodge granted the requested charter for African Lodge No. 459 in Boston. Using this charter, Prince Hall later established lodges in Philadelphia and Providence, building the foundation for African American Freemasonry in the United States.

GL2004_4204DI1croppedSouvenir Trowel, 1950. Loaned by the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts, GL2004.4204.

Nearly two centuries later, on August 13, 1950, African American Masonic groups from across the U.S. came together in Boston for a week of festivities to celebrate the anniversary of Prince Hall and his brethren’s initiation. According to a notice in the Boston Globe, the program was slated to include a parade of a stunning “15,000 Master Masons representing 41 Grand Lodges, 95,000 Master Masons, Grand Chapters of O.E.S. [Order of the Eastern Star], Holy Royal Arch Masons, Knights Templars, Shriners, Daughters of Isis and Consistories.” Participants made a pilgrimage to the grave of Prince Hall at Copp’s Hill Burying Ground and attended memorial services at Tremont Temple. Also among the convention’s highlights was the presentation of $15,000 to the American Cancer Society and $20,000 to Howard University-affiliated Freedman Hospital from the Shrine Tuberculosis and Cancer Research Foundations.

Today, Prince Hall Masons continue to support their communities at thousands of lodges across the nation and world. We invite you to learn more about the history of American Freemasonry at our online exhibitions and collections pages, as well as the museum’s Flickr page.

 


Pollie and James Henry Thomas and the Household of Ruth

Pollie Thomas postcard
Pollie Thomas, 1908-1914, Benjamin Ami Blakemore (1846-1932), Staunton, Virginia. Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, Lexington, Massachusetts, A2018/053/005.

Pencil inscriptions on the back of these two photographs in the collection of the Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives identify that they portray Pollie Thomas (1888-1976) (at left) and her husband, James Henry Thomas (1869-1929) (at left, below). The Thomases lived in Staunton, Virginia. A copy of the "By-laws and Rules of Order Rose of Sharon Household of Ruth," published in 1915, signed "Sister Pollie Thomas," shows that Pollie Thomas belonged to this organization. A further inscription on the back of her portrait notes that she held the office of “Worthy Recorder,” or secretary, of the group.

Membership in the Household of Ruth was open to wives, daughters, and other relations of men who belonged to the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. Based in England, the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows granted a charter to a group of Black men who wished to form a lodge in New York in 1843. In the United States, the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows was an African American organization.

Established in the United States in 1858, the Household of Ruth was a women’s auxiliary associated with the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. The organization granted degrees to both men and women. The group that Pollie Thomas belonged to, Rose of Sharon, No. 79, received its warrant in 1876. The Grand United Order of Odd Fellows lodge in Staunton, King Hiram No. 1463, where Pollie’s husband was likely a member, received its charter a few years before, in 1871. When he died in 1929, James Henry Thomas’s obituary noted that the Odd Fellows, the Household of Ruth, and the Lilly of the Valley Lodge of Elks, No. 171 conducted portions of his funeral service.

More examples of archival material related to African American fraternal groups in the collection of the Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives can be viewed here, on our digital collections site.

References:

"Thomas Funeral," The News Leader (Staunton, VA), 7/13/1929, 2.

Charles H. Brooks, The Official History and Manual of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in America (Philadelphia, PA: Odd Fellows Print Journal, 1902), 115, 141.

 

Henry Thomas postcard
James Henry Thomas, 1907-1929, J.A. Haack, Washington, D.C. Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, Lexington, Massachusetts, A2018/053/007.

 


Digital Collections Highlight: Theodore Gleghorn's 1921 Master Mason certificate

A2019_124_001DS1_web                                                                                                                                                             Theodore Gleghorn's Master Mason certificate is just one of many documents available in the African American Freemasonry & Fraternalism collection at the Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives Digital Collections website. Hermon Lodge No. 21 issued this Master Mason certificate (above) to Gleghorn (1890-1978). The certificate is dated October 10, 1921, and signed by Hermon Lodge’s Worshipful Master Charles Murdock and Secretary P. B. French. Located in Sparta, Illinois, Hermon Lodge No. 21 was chartered in 1875 by the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of the Most Ancient & Honorable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons of the State of Illinois.

Detail_of_A2019_124_001DS1_webWhat makes Gleghorn's Masonic certificate so different from the many hundreds of Masonic certificates in our collection is that it includes a photograph of the certificate's owner (at right), embossed with Hermon Lodge's seal. This, in addition to the lodge officers' signatures, and Gleghorn's own signature, helped prove the document's authenticity if Gleghorn presented it to a lodge where he was not known.

Seeing Theodore Gleghorn's portrait on the certificate makes one wonder - who was he? What do we know about him? According to the WWI registration card that Gleghorn filled out in 1917, he was born in Cutler, Illinois in 1890. In 1917, the Wilson Bros. Coal Co., in Sparta, Illinois, employed him as a miner. The 1920 and 1930 U.S. Federal Censuses also show that Gleghorn continued to work in the coal mining industry. Around 1947, Gleghorn moved north to Springfield, Illinois, where he was employed by the State Division of Local Health Services. He worked there for at least twenty-five years. A 1971 newsletter published by the Illinois Department of Health includes an article and photograph showing that Gleghorn and other long-serving employees had been honored as members of the Illinois Department of Public Health's "Quarter Century Club."

Gleghorn was married to Emma L. (Britton) Gleghorn (1907-1980) and they had a son, Emmett D. Gleghorn (1933-1987). If you know more about Theodore Gleghorn's Masonic involvement or any other details about his life, we would love to hear from you. Just post a comment below or contact us through our website.

Caption:
Prince Hall Master Mason certificate issued by Hermon Lodge, No. 21, to Theodore Gleghorn, 1921. Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, Lexington, Massachusetts, Museum Purchase, A2019/124/001.


The Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks of the World

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Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World Jacket, 1952-2011. Mr. Leggs and Fraternal Supplies, Inc., New London, Ohio. Museum Purchase, 2019.013.8. Photograph by Julia Featheringill

Founded in 1897, the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World (IBPOE of W), is an African American fraternal order that offered leadership training, professional networking opportunities, and social fellowship to members. Modeled on the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (BPOE), the IBPOE of W operated in the same principles of charity, justice, brotherly love, and fidelity. In addition, founders Arthur James Riggs (1855-1936) and Benjamin Franklin Howard (1860-1918), both members of other fraternal organizations, established the IBPOE of W to advocate for “the expression of ideals, services and leadership in the black struggle for freedom and opportunity.”

In support of that mission, the group formed a number of "departments," including a Civil Liberties Department in 1926, to actively coordinate campaigns against segregation and for equal civil and political rights. In its first thirty years, the IBPOE of W experienced problems with factionalism, copyright, and incorporation issues in various states, as well as a number of legal conflicts with the all white Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. Despite this turbulent beginning, the still-active IBPOE of W became one of the largest African American fraternal organizations in North America, with lodges in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

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Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World Jacket, 1952-2011. Mr. Leggs and Fraternal Supplies, Inc., New London, Ohio. Museum Purchase, 2019.013.8. Photograph by Julia Featheringill

To show the pride in their association with the IBPOE of W, some members wore street clothes decorated with symbols of their fraternity. Fraternal Supplies, Inc. in New London, Ohio, which operated until 2011, embroidered the jacket pictured here with images and names related to the IBPOE of W, sometime between 1952 and 2011.

The Order’s emblem, the head of an elk within a circle and the words Cervus Alces, the Latin name of the American elk, are on the front of the jacket, along with an elk in a forest. On the back is an embroidered image of an Elks member and the words “Sons of the Forest.”  The Museum acquired the jacket, with original tags, from the former Fraternal Supplies, Inc. factory in Ohio in 2019.  The jacket may have been a sample or an order for an individual that was never delivered or fulfilled. 

Have you or a family member owned a jacket like this one? Have you seen a similar kind of jacket? Let us know in the comments section below.   

References:

Tamara L. Brown, Gregory S. Parks, and Clarenda M. Phillips, eds. African American Fraternities and Sororities: The Legacy and the Vision (Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 2005), 86-87.

Marshall Ganz, Ariane Liazos, Theda Skocpol. What a Mighty Power We Can be: African American Fraternal Groups and the Struggle for Racial Equality (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2006), 16-17.

Alvin Schmidt. Fraternal Organizations (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1980), 107-108.


Freemasonry and the First Black-Owned TV Station in the United States

A2018_153_001DS001_webWhat does Freemasonry have to do with the first Black-owned television station in the United States? A recently digitized membership application for the International Free & Accepted Modern Masons (IFAMM), pictured here, helps explain.

William Venoid Banks (1903-1985) founded the IFAMM in 1950. Although Banks' organization has been around for seventy years, it is not recognized by either mainstream predominantly white Grand Lodges or by historically Black Grand Lodges. Indeed, the International Free & Accepted Modern Masons is among the groups highlighted by the Phylaxis Society's Commission on Bogus Masonic Practices and is included in their list of "Bogus Grand Lodges." The Phylaxis Society's website includes a number of pages related to the organization, which it considers clandestine. Another article, titled "The Amway of Freemasonry? - The Clandestine Order of International Masons," lays out an argument about why mainstream historically Black and predominantly white Grand Lodges do not view IFAMM as a legitimate Masonic organization. Yet IFAMM, and in particular its founder, William V. Banks, played an important role in the history of Black-owned media, both in Detroit and in the United States as a whole.

The membership application shown here highlights Banks' involvement with the group. He is the only officer identified on the form and his title--Supreme Grand Master--makes it clear that he heads the organization. He also self-identifies as both a minister and a lawyer. Two phrases near the top of the form--"Get Involved in the Progress of Our People" and "The Owner of the First Black Owned TV in the U.S." highlight the organization's focus on Black empowerment and the importance of Black-owned businesses.

IFAMM's website gives an account of the organization's 1964 purchase of the Detroit radio station WGPR. It also notes that in 1975, IFAMM established WGPR-TV62, the first Black-owned television station in the United States. Fifty-six years later, IFAMM continues to own and operate the radio station. IFAMM owned and operated the TV station for twenty years, from 1975 until 1995, when it was purchased by CBS.

In 2017, the WGPR TV Historical Society founded the William V. Banks Broadcast Museum & Media Center, which is housed in the television station's original studios in Detroit. If you want to learn more about Banks and the importance of the founding of WGPR-TV62, we recommend this 2018 article [PDF] which appeared in the Historical Society of Michigan's magazine, Michigan History.

The IFAMM membership application featured here is among the many items that can be found in the African American Freemasonry & Fraternalism collection at the Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives Digital Collections website.

Caption:

Unissued International F. & A.M. Masons application, about 1975. Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, Lexington, Massachusetts, Museum Purchase, A2018/153/001.

 

 

 


Caesar Robert Blake, Imperial Potentate

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Caesar Robert Blake, Imperial Potentate, 1919-1931. Carolina Studio, Charlotte, North Carolina. Museum Purchase, 99.044.1.

Social activism and fraternalism have long been connected in African American communities across the United States. Many members of African American fraternal groups, including the Prince Hall Shrine, Prince Hall Freemasonry, the Knights of Pythias, and the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, were also civic leaders in their communities, advocating for social justice reforms and civil liberties.

As Americans celebrate the 155th Juneteenth holiday this week, we take a closer look at one of these civic and fraternal leaders from North Carolina, Caesar Robert Blake (c.1886-1931). Born in Winnsboro, South Carolina, Blake worked as a clerk with Norfolk and Southern Railway and real estate broker in Charlotte, North Carolina. Active in fraternal societies,  Blake became the Imperial Potentate of the Ancient Egyptian Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, Prince Hall affiliated (A.E.A.O.N.M.S.), also known as the Prince Hall Shriners, in 1919, at the age of 33. He served in that role until his death in 1931.  During his tenure, he advocated for local Prince Hall Shrine lodges embroiled, along with other African American fraternal orders, in a racially charged and complex legislative dispute argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1912 and 1929.  

In 1904 leaders from the predominately white Knights of Pythias, the Benevolent Order of Elks, and the Shriners launched a legal campaign against parallel African American orders in Georgia, Mississippi, and New York, accusing the groups of fraud and copyright violations. The legal battle manifested itself in dozens of legal suits against African American orders in over twenty-nine states over a thirty year period. While litigious happenings were common among fraternal orders attempting to prevent “non-sanctioned” groups from forming, this particular campaign was thought to be partially motivated by racism. This belief was supported by official publications that included derogatory language about African Americans and the hostile actions of lodge members affiliated with the three orders filing the suit.

Blake, with many other fraternal leaders and lawyers, helped to organize a legal campaign for the Prince Hall Shrine. He also assisted in securing funding for legal costs. In author Joseph A. Walkes' 1993 history of the Prince Hall Shrine, he notes Blake described the legal trials at the 1920 national convention as part of a "life and death struggle" motivated by "intense hatred of our race." Blake went on to say that Prince Hall Shrine's defense of their "rights in the courts ... to exist as a Body of the Mystic Shrine" was their "duty ... as members of a victimized race." In 1929, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Prince Hall Shrine.  Blake issued a proclamation after the complicated legal victory stating “This is not only a distinct victory for our order but for our race…”

Blake died two years later after a brief and sudden illness, at the age of 45. His portrait, pictured here, is included in the upcoming exhibition What’s in a Portrait?  Visit the online version of the exhibition to learn more.

 

REFERENCES

Marshall Ganz, Ariane Liazos, Theda Skocpol. What a Mighty Power We Can be: African American Fraternal Groups and the Struggle for Racial Equality (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2006), 135-167.

Susan Nance. How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790-1935 (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 169.

Joseph A. Walkes. Ancient Egyptian Arabic Order Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, Inc. (Prince Hall Affiliated): A Pillar of Black society, 1893-1993 (Detroit: Ancient Egyptian Arabic Order Nobles of the Mystic Shrine of North and South American and Its Jurisdictions, Inc. (P.H.A.), 1993), 106.