Freemasonry and Technology

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.


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




Filmed in Glorious Masoniscope?

Masoniscopestb_web Stumbling upon interesting items is one of the joys of working with any collection. The other day I was looking at Carl H. Claudy's The Masonic Service Association of the United States, published in 1939 [Call no.: 43.C615 1939]. While browsing through the book I came across the word "Masoniscope." What is this? I thought.

It turns out that the Masoniscope is one in a long line of methods used to illustrate the emblems of Freemasonry in the lodge room. Tracing boards, whether in the form of a painting on wood or an image projected on a wall, are essentially visual aids which use Masonic symbols to illustrate the principles taught in each Degree of Freemasonry. They are used by the lecturer to help a candidate associate an image with an idea.

The Masoniscope provides a glimpse into a wonderful moment where the history of technology and the history of Freemasonry overlap. As is the case with many technological changes, what once sounded cutting edge now sounds quaint. Claudy writes:

"Later in its history the Association developed the Masoniscope; a small projector using a short roll of standard motion picture film, on which are the emblems of the three degrees. This was intended to take the place of the much more cumbersome projection lantern and the expensive and breakable glass slides."

The Masoniscope was a filmstrip projector, used in this case for projecting Masonic emblems in the lodge room. Compared to the lantern slide projectors that they were replacing, filmstrip projectors were a new technology and offered advantages to the technology that they were taking the place of. You probably won't be surprised to learn that many Masonic lodges today use PowerPoint in the same way that the Masoniscope was used in 1926.

And just one last thing, which shows again how much times have changed in terms of technology. The April 1926 Short Talk Bulletin (still published by the MSA), called "Seeing," describes the Masoniscope in further detail, including a statement on how the Masoniscope was powered. I was struck by what a difference eighty years makes, since it states that the Masoniscope "uses any sort of electric current: alternating, direct, Delco, storage battery, even automobile battery current."

Yes, that's right, even automobile battery current.