Published January 13, 2015
The Masons, the storied fraternal order whose members have included Mozart, George Washington and John Wayne, has become entwined across the Deep South with the remnants of another tradition in these parts: strict segregation.
Nationwide, Masonic 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.
But in the South, it goes further: White-controlled Grand Lodges in 12 Southern states do not even officially recognize black Masons as their brothers — the Masonic term is "mutual recognition" — and in some cases, black lodges have taken similar stands.
Masons have quietly debated race 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.
"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 mingle and attend each other's 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're 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 also 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, Bessel said.
The Masonic movement, also known as Freemasonry, began in Enlightenment-area England and is known for its white aprons and architectural symbols. It came to the United States more than 250 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 later named for one of the founders, Prince Hall.
The all-black lodges flourished alongside their white counterparts. White Masons in Washington state, briefly considered admitting Prince Hall Masons in 1890, Bessel said, but the resulting uproar kept most such proposals on hold 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.
In Alabama, where critics say Grand Lodge members rejected a move to recognize black Masons in 1999, a few white Masons have formed a group outside the old system.
The issue also has become political, with Democrats accusing Alabama's 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 recognition to Prince Hall Masons. The vote was 681 for recognition and 404 against — just short of the two-thirds majority required, according to Ric Carter, editor of the state's Masonic newspaper. Black Masons in North Carolina granted recognition of white Masons in 2004.
The whites' refusal to reciprocate "raises the ugly head of racism, segregation, all over again," said the leader of Prince Hall Masons in North Carolina, Milton G. "Toby" Fitch Jr., a state judge and former majority leader in the North Carolina House.
"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. We are talking about accepting the fact that 'you practice Masonry and I practice Masonry.'"
The head of Prince Hall Masons in Arkansas, Cleveland Wilson, said neither black nor white groups there have discussed mutual recognition. Extending 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.