Masons, with their white aprons and architectural symbols, are part of an age-old order that preaches fraternity, service and faith. Mozart was a Mason, and so were George Washington and John Wayne.
But in much of the South, the Masonic bonds of the brotherhood are being strained by race: Groups operate in a separate-but-supposedly-equal system in which whites typically join one network of Masonic groups, called Grand Lodges, and blacks typically join another, called Prince Hall.
Masons have quietly debated their interracial relations for years, and the issue is increasingly coming into public view.
In Alabama, some dissident whites have split from the lodge system, and Republican Gov. Bob Riley’s membership in an all-white lodge has drawn fire in his campaign for a second term. In North Carolina, white Masons recently voted down a bid to recognize members of the black group as fellow Masons.
White-controlled Grand Lodges in 12 Southern states still have not officially accepted black Masons as their brothers—the Masonic term is “mutual recognition”—and, in some cases, blacks have taken similar stands.
“Only the states of the old Confederacy, minus Virginia and plus West Virginia, don’t have mutual recognition,” said Paul Bessel, a Maryland Mason who wrote a book on the topic. “There are, I’m sorry to say, some Masons who are racists. But the vast majority don’t feel that way.”
Grand Lodges and Prince Hall groups coexist with few problems and officially recognize each other in 38 states and the District of Columbia, with members free to intermingle and attend each others’ meetings. Frank Chandler, a leader of the black Masonic group in Delaware, was happy to see mutual recognition granted in his state last month.
“The importance of it to me is that this is 2006. If we as black folks and they as white folks can’t live together, we’ve got real problems,” said Chandler, a retired Delaware state trooper.
But, Bessel said, the separation in the Deep South is entrenched and remains in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. It even extends to Shriners, the men who wear funny red hats and operate a network of 22 charity hospitals for children. Shriners draw all their members from Masonry, and many of their policies are based on Masonic rules, he said.
Masonry began in the United States more than 200 years ago. Mainstream Masonry was controlled by whites, so blacks began meeting at lodges of their own in the 1770s; the organization that resulted was subsequently named for one of the founders, Prince Hall.
The all-black lodges flourished alongside their white counterparts, and Prince Hall organizations spread. White Masons in Washington briefly considered admitting Prince Hall Masons in 1890, Bessel said, but the resulting uproar kept most such proposals on ice until 1989, when the Grand Lodge of Connecticut passed a resolution formally recognizing black Masons.
Since then, 37 other state organizations have granted mutual recognition. But the South remains a holdout.
In Alabama, where critics say Grand Lodge members refused a move to recognize black Masons in 1999, a handful of white Masons dissatisfied with the refusal to recognize black Masons has formed a group outside the old lodge system.
The issue also has become political, with Democratic opponents accusing Riley, the Republican governor, of racism for his membership in an all-white lodge. Riley said he didn’t know there were two separate Masonic groups and hadn’t heard of mutual recognition until questioned recently by an Associated Press reporter.
This fall, white Masons in North Carolina refused to grant mutual recognition to Prince Hall Masons, meaning members still cannot attend each others’ meetings and, more symbolically, aren’t considered brothers in the fraternity.
The vote was 681 for recognition and 404 against—just short of the two-thirds majority required for passage, according to Ric Carter, assistant to the grand secretary of North Carolina and editor of the state’s Masonic newspaper.
Black Masons in North Carolina granted recognition in their first vote after a study of the issue was completed in 2004, Carter said.
While support is growing in the white group, he said, the lack of more progress is frustrating to leaders.
“It’s not moving fast enough for me,” Carter said. “I think it’s just old men who can’t change.”
The leader of Prince Hall Masons in North Carolina, Milton G. “Toby” Fitch Jr., agrees.
“That raises the ugly head of racism, segregation, all over again,” said Fitch, a State Court judge and former majority leader in the North Carolina House.
At the core, Fitch said, white Masons are saying they won’t recognize blacks as brothers in Masonry.
“The best analogy I can give is Baptist churches. You have black Baptist churches, and you have white Baptist churches. But they both recognize each other as being Baptist,” he said. “We are talking about accepting the fact that, ‘You practice Masonry and I practice Masonry.’”
In Delaware, Masons ended more than 150 years of racial separation when they came together Sept. 16 to sign a compact of recognition, Chandler said.
But Masons in some Southern states have never even considered coming together across racial lines.
The head of Prince Hall Masons in Arkansas, Cleveland Wilson, said neither black nor white groups there have discussed mutual recognition.
Extending the Masonic brotherhood would be nice, he said, “but we’re fine without them.”
“I’m of the attitude that since they haven’t shown any interest, I’m not interested, either,” Wilson said.