Prince Hall Shrine

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:


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.