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African American Prince Hall Masons in Alabama

Mary Stanton, New York, New York
The Prince Hall Masons, an African American fraternity, was established in 1775 in Boston, Massachusetts, by Prince Hall, a black abolitionist and Revolutionary War veteran with 14 of his friends. The organization became a great asset to the cultural and economic development of emancipated African Americans after the Civil War. Alabama's first Prince Hall Masonic Lodge was organized in Mobile, Mobile County, in 1867, and lodges soon opened in other areas of the state. The Prince Hall Masons counted among members many individuals of note in Alabama history, including Booker T. Washington, W. C. Handy, Arthur Shores, and Ralph Abernathy. The lodges and members also played important roles in the civil rights movement and in the cultural life of African Americans in this state.
In 1857, Simon Ashe, a successful free black cotton merchant living in Mobile, joined the New Orleans Richmond Lodge No. 1. Ashe travelled extensively through the South serving his customers and developing his business. But as rumors of secession and inevitable war increased, Ashe settled in Xenia, Ohio, and joined the Masons' Colored Wilberforce Lodge No. 21 there. The Prince Hall Masons of Xenia collaborated with Ohio abolitionists to oppose slavery before the war began and supported the secret Underground Railroad movement in its efforts to helping runaway slaves by providing money, food, and the shelter of their lodges and churches. When the war ended, Ashe returned to Mobile and in 1868 with African American business associates Henry Clement, George Daniels, William Little, and William Taylor, established Alabama's first Prince Hall Masonic Lodge; Olive Branch No. 1. By 1870, Strangers Lodge No. 27 and Hiram Lodge No. 3 were also operating in Mobile. They were soon followed by lodges in Jefferson, Montgomery, Dallas, Barbour, Lee, and Talladega Counties.
Fraternity membership was considered very beneficial because better educated members, who may have been teachers, lawyers, pastors or businessmen, tutored new members, who were often farmers, miners, mill workers or laborers, to develop their organizational and public-speaking skills. Inside the Lodge, all fraternity members, regardless of their outside status, were treated as equals. Lodge dues were used to assist members and their families in times of illness or injury and to provide survivor benefits for their widows and dependent children. Many African American men joined Prince Hall Lodges to ensure that their burial costs would be covered, and pastors often served as Lodge Masters, or leaders. Prince Hall Masons often met in churches, or in school houses and barns in rural areas, or apartments over black-owned stores and businesses in larger towns and cities.
In 1878, Alabama's Prince Hall Masons called a statewide convention in which 22 Alabama Lodges voted to establish a Grand Lodge, with its headquarters in Birmingham, Jefferson County. By 1902, there were 104 Prince Hall lodges in Alabama representing approximately 2,830 members and more than 11,000 members in 414 lodges by 1910. Three years later, under the leadership of Grand Master Walter T. Woods, another state convention voted to raise funds and move forward with plans to construct a Grand Temple for their Grand Lodge in Birmingham. A seven-story "skyscraper" was commissioned in the heart of the city's African American business district in 1922. The building was designed by African American architects Robert R. Taylor and Leo Persley and all the construction work was done by Alabama's black-owned and -operated Windham Brothers Construction Company.
The Temple opened in 1924 showcasing a 1,500-seat auditorium, a two-story grand ballroom, and lodge rooms on three floors. Office space was available for lease and there were retail stores and a restaurant on the ground floor. The Booker T. Washington Library filled three rooms on the first floor. Other tenants included attorneys, accountants, medical and dental offices, insurance companies, a barbershop, a jeweler, a billiards parlor, and the Radio Cab Company. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) rented offices on the second floor and later established a regional office on the sixth in 1951. The ballroom was available for weddings, banquets, and graduations and the auditorium provided a venue for concerts, athletic events, and big band orchestras, including those of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Both men were Prince Hall Masons, as were Alabama music greats W. C. Handy, Nat King Cole, Lionel Hampton, and Erskine Hawkins. The new Temple quickly became the heart and soul of Birmingham's historic Fourth Avenue District.
On October 2, 1932, attorneys representing the nine defendants in the infamous Scottsboro Trials hosted a fundraising event at the Temple. The atmosphere was tense, with police surrounding the building and white Birmingham residents threatening everyone who entered. Despite this, the event was successful. Hosea Hudson, a local African American iron molder who had been fired for union organizing was in the crowd that day. Five years later he organized a "Right to Vote Club" to help poor and working-class blacks navigate Alabama's voter registration process. He also held voting clinics in rooms he rented at the Temple. Hudson filed discrimination charges whenever Club members were denied their right to register to vote and many of them were represented in court by NAACP attorney Arthur Shores, also a Prince Hall Mason.
Birmingham's white Masons required their members to remain non-political and were often critical of black Masons for permitting political events at the Temple. But local African Americans, faced with segregation, police brutality, and the denial of voting rights and fair housing, did not believe that they had the luxury of remaining non-political. Prince Hall leaders sometimes felt caught between the desire to work with the city's white establishment and the need to protest its actions.
Working from Room 624, NAACP regional director Ruby Hurley coordinated the organization's programs throughout Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi. Backlash against the NAACP's increasing effectiveness in Alabama, however, prompted Attorney General John Patterson to issue a restraining order barring the NAACP from operating in the state, alleging that it had failed to register as an out-of-state organization. (The ruling was overturned in 1958 in NAACP v. Alabama.) Patterson also subpoenaed its membership records, which Hurley refused to release, knowing that there would be job losses, home evictions, and probable physical attacks on people identified as members. On May 26, 1956, state officials padlocked the NAACP offices in the Temple, but Hurley had already spirited the records out the front door and across the street to the Birmingham World newspaper office. They remained there for the next eight years.
In May 1961, the Temple sheltered and lodge members cared for Freedom Riders who were beaten outside Anniston, Calhoun County, and attacked in Birmingham's Greyhound Bus Station. During the Birmingham Campaign of 1963, the Temple functioned as a first-aid station for young demonstrators who were beaten and attacked with fire hoses and dogs as they marched from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to the downtown shopping district to protest discrimination.
By the late 1960s, Birmingham was suffering from years of economic problems. Many businesses closed, people lost their jobs, and many moved away. When the downtown area lost its status as the hub of the city, the huge historic Prince Hall Grand Lodge became too costly to maintain. In 2011, the last tenants moved out and the building was closed. In 2016, there was renewed interest in restoring and redeveloping the Temple. Lodge membership increased for the first time in many years, and leaders formed committees to plan a fundraising campaign and to seek foundation grants.
Published:  September 18, 2017   |   Last updated:  September 18, 2017