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.
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.