Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Power of a Common Cause: Race, Democracy and the Masons

By David A. Taylor

My grandparents lived in the shadow of Alexandria, Virginia’s tallest building, the Masonic Temple on Shooters Hill. Grandpops ran a plumbing and heating wholesaler in the old port section of Alexandria, in a warehouse that began as a lathe shop for repairing ships docked nearby. As a small boy I visited his office with my mother: climbing the steps from the big, drafty brick warehouse, a hive of activity with shelves of copper pipe and ceramic fixtures in all sizes. Following her up the staircase for the first time, I saw the great desk and then my grandfather, a balding man with glasses, a long white face, and a deadpan sense of humor who regarded me seriously and said, “What can I do for you, sir? Would you be interested in buying a bathtub today?”

When he died, I read the death notice in the newspaper, my first experience, at the age of 11, reading about someone I knew in the obituaries. Near the end, it said that my grandfather was a thirty-second degree Mason. My eyes lingered on that strange phrase. I had heard of Masons as a secret brotherhood, which fascinated me. But I was confused: had Grandpops kept his Masonic identity a secret? What did ‘thirty-second degree’ mean? It sounded impossibly high in the Masons’ hierarchy, a fact at odds with my sense of my grandfather, who tended to disdain hierarchies. Who was this man?

As anyone who has read The Lost Symbol knows, Freemasonry in America dates back to before the days of George Washington. What started as a stoneworkers’ guild in the Middle Ages emerged as a men’s club for civic leadership. By 1900, one out of three American men belonged to the Masons or another fraternal society, and millions of women joined their sister organizations. The icons of the Masonic compass and sphinx were as visible in everyday life as Nike’s swoosh or the bitten Apple are now. With passing time they’ve become even more enigmatic, staid yet mysterious.Freemasonry has a very different connotation in black communities. For African-Americans, Freemasonry started with Prince Hall, a Boston freedman and veteran of Bunker Hill who saw Freemasonry not just as a men’s club but as a forum for transforming their history and their future. “Freemasonry gave the Negro in this country his first opportunity to find himself,” wrote a black lawyer named George W. Crawford in 1914; “it started him on the road to self-hood.”

“When you study Prince Hall, you learn he became a Mason because he saw the philosophy of Masonry as a way to advance his cause, to free his brethren and sisters,” says E. Denise Simmons, a council member and former mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts who in May 2010 dedicated a memorial to Prince Hall there on the town green. “Martin Luther King, Jr. stands squarely on the shoulders of Prince Hall.”

Simmons came to Prince Hall’s story through her own. She grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood of Cambridge, earned a Master’s degree in Psychotherapy as a single mother, and ran for city council on a platform of making government more responsive to Cambridge’s black and gay communities. She served as mayor in 2008-2009, the city’s first openly gay African-American woman mayor. Growing up in a family hurt by addiction and poverty, her guidepost to accomplishment was her grandfather, a Prince Hall Mason in Alabama. Her grandfather’s involvement in Prince Hall Masonry, she says, “gave me an interest in Prince Hall in line with my interest in black history.”

Prince Hall founded African Lodge No. 1, established in Boston in 1787 with a charter from the Masons of Britain. When white American Masons refused to grant Hall and other black applicants membership, they started their own lodge. For over 200 years, the fraternity of American Freemasonry, with a core tenet of universal brotherhood, was segregated by race.

I became curious about Prince Hall Masonry and its link to social justice after I came across the papers of George W. Crawford while doing other research in Yale’s Sterling library. Crawford came of age in post-Reconstruction Alabama under Booker T. Washington, graduated from Yale law school in 1903, co-founded the Niagara Movement with W.E.B. Du Bois, and helped start the NAACP. As a Prince Hall Mason, Crawford led the organization through an era of remarkable advances, and helped channel Masonic support to the NAACP’s campaign for equality crowned by Thurgood Marshall’s victory in Brown v. Board of Education. Barely a footnote in most histories of civil rights, Crawford’s story highlights surprises in Freemasonry and illustrates the role of Prince Hall Masons in the civil rights struggle, with links to four generations of civil rights leaders. (Washington and Du Bois were both Masons. Washington believed that Freemasonry could forge leadership in the black community; Du Bois considered Masonic lodges a natural successor to secret societies in Africa. Both saw Prince Hall Masonry as fostering black enterprise and institutional change, as Theda Skocpol and Ariane Liazos observe in their 2008 book, What A Mighty Power We Can Be.)

When I looked for people who could tell me about Prince Hall Masonry and George Crawford, I soon came to Dr. Ann Robinson.

Robinson, a North Carolina-born psychology professor and community historian in New Haven’s Dixwell neighborhood, grew up seeing Prince Hall Masons as unwelcoming, notwithstanding that her father was one. She and her husband moved north in August 1967, when her husband took a position at the Yale School of Medicine. Those years were exciting but tumultuous, with riots, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and New Haven’s Black Panther trial. For decades as the city endured waves of ups and downs, Freemasons seemed irrelevant. So she was startled when, in the 1990s, she was asked by the local Prince Hall Masons to help prepare their lodge to become part of the Connecticut Freedom Trail.

“It was a secret society,” she said when we met last winter, “a world of men closed to women.” But the Masons knew they had to extend a hand across old barriers to reach a new generation. Before long Robinson was inside the Widow’s Son Lodge, an old brick building she had never imagined entering in 30 years. There Robinson “met George Crawford as a historical personage,” she explained. “You enter the building – there’s George Crawford.” A bust in the foyer stands at a height he had in life and his contributions. You go further in, to the main room – there’s George Crawford in a large portrait on the wall. You can’t tell if he’s white or black, he’s simply stiff and formal. Who was this? Robinson wondered.

We explored this question when we met again in June 2011, on a rare day when New Haven’s Prince Hall lodge opened to outsiders. It was part of New Haven’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas, and a sign out front said: ‘Walking Tours, Arts & Ideas.’ Robinson as community historian had organized the event and invited me to share what I had learned about Crawford.

Crawford devoted years of activity behind those closed doors, through decades when black history hardly gained historians’ attention. His legal career stretched from 1903 until his death in 1972; to the end he was writing case notes that fed seminal civil and affirmative action litigation, including Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, which started the year Crawford died. A longer career in civil rights litigation is hard to imagine. Yet not long after his death, the black student coalition at Yale, his alma mater, concluded Crawford had made little lasting impact on black life. Yet he had earned the praise of NAACP director Roy Wilkins, who said, “The benefits which minorities enjoy today and the efforts to expand their opportunities are due in no small measure to the men of vision, hard work and unassailable achievement exemplified by George W. Crawford.” Thurgood Marshall expressed gratitude for the support of Prince Hall Masons under Crawford’s leadership, saying, “Whenever and wherever I needed money and did not know of any other place to get it, the Prince Hall Masons never let me down.”

People who knew Crawford in life often commented on his imposing presence: “You could feel it when he came into a room,” recalled one, “You knew he was there.” They remembered his oratorical skills and willingness to trade jibes with white corporate bosses on the steps of city hall. Yet over time he seemed to pour himself less into his own individual portrait, and more into the work of changing institutions: shoring up Howard University as a member of its board, filing briefs for the NAACP, serving as New Haven’s corporation counsel, administering an obscure fraternity. It seemed that the law and Freemasonry harnessed all of Crawford’s energy.

Born in October 1877 in Tuscaloosa to parents who had grown up in slavery, Crawford faced bleak prospects in rural Alabama. Orphaned while he was still a young boy, he was raised by grandparents in Birmingham. At 16 he made his way to Tuskegee, where Booker T. Washington was headmaster. As Washington’s office boy, Crawford was one day assigned to the print shop, where other workers teased him. His anger exploded and he hurled a blocked typeform at one of them. It sailed across the room, scattering wooden type everywhere. Crawford was sent to the headmaster, where Washington talked him down, then let him off without further punishment.

Crawford graduated from Tuskegee Institute the year that the Supreme Court ruled for segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson. After a bachelor’s degree from Talladega College, he launched into a new century with law school applications. He ended up at Yale Law School, and happened to be there when Booker T. Washington and President Theodore Roosevelt (also a Mason) both received honorary degrees during Yale’s bicentennial celebration in 1902. Crawford was likely in the audience then, one month after Washington and Roosevelt met over a meal at the White House. The image of a black man sitting down for dinner at the White House (with white women present) had outraged Southern whites, and mindful of the backlash, Roosevelt and Washington barely acknowledged each other during the Yale event.

As graduation approached, Crawford decided to practice law in the South, he told the Times-Picayune of New Orleans of his plans after Yale. “I am going back to my own State to practice among my own people.” He explained that 70% of criminal defendants in Alabama were black, and that “white lawyers are now taking their money to defend them. I might as well have some of that money as the white lawyers, and perhaps I can do a little more for it.”

It was a dangerous path. Black lawyers in the South were mocked and threatened with violence. “No Negro lawyer in this County, Thank God,” one white lawyer replied to a 1928 survey of counties in the South. “I never knew or heard of any Negro with nerve enough to come to this County or Court House to practice law,” replied another in Georgia. Black lawyers faced hurdles even in the black community, explained W.E.B. Du Bois, because their clients recognized that, while a doctor’s work rests mainly on his or her skill, “a lawyer must have cooperation from fellow lawyers and respect and influence in court; thus prejudice or discrimination of any kind is especially felt in this profession.”

In Crawford’s scrapbooks there’s a telling artifact from that time as a freshly minted Yale lawyer. Alongside newspaper clippings about his winning the Townsend Oration Prize, he had carefully placed the only recognition of his accomplishment from his home newspaper in Birmingham: a racist cartoon that depicted him as a grinning caricature beside a gravestone for Yale’s standards. The clipping, saved by Crawford for the rest of his life, testified to his capacity to burnish a cool outrage.

Ultimately he decided to settle in New Haven with an appointment to Connecticut’s Probate Court. Still he always remained attuned to the needs of blacks in the South, often going back to the segregated world of Talladega to serve on the college’s board or craft a vocational guide for its graduates, and through his activity with the Masons and the NAACP.

Crawford joined Du Bois at a gathering at Niagara Falls in 1905 to establish a more assertive movement for equality, in an apparent break with his schoolmaster Washington. The Niagara Movement urged the U.S. government to end discrimination and illiteracy in the South, and to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment. Crawford managed the Niagara Movement’s Civil Rights Division; when the organization fell apart, succeeded by the NAACP in 1909, Crawford helped establish that too. That same year he was initiated among the Prince Hall Masons at Widow’s Son Lodge, No. 1 in New Haven. Soon afterward he invited Du Bois to be inducted as a Mason there as well. For Crawford, the NAACP and Prince Hall Masonry both were re-igniting high ideals and a search for social justice.

He and his wife Sadella had a daughter, Charlotte, and a son who died at just two days old. In the wake of that family tragedy, Crawford funneled even more energy into NAACP affairs and the Masons. He published a book, Prince Hall and His Followers, a robust defense of the group at a time when white Masons waged legal attacks against Prince Hall Masonry and other black fraternal societies. (Legal suits by white masons aimed at shutting down black fraternal orders began before 1900 and were among the first victories won by the black fraternities in the courts.) His idea of slow, steady legal change fused with his sense of Prince Hall’s vision.

“It often happens that Error and Falsehood for a time out-pace the Truth,” Crawford wrote in a play titled The Immortal Fifteen, which he intended to be performed in Prince Hall lodges. “They mostly go on horseback, while she makes her tedious way afoot.”

A test of the national coordination of the new NAACP came in its campaign against D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, Birth of A Nation. Crawford led the New Haven campaign, pushing city officials to cut the most egregious scenes in the film’s racist interpretation of blacks and American history. NAACP branches across the country waged protests, The Crisis reported, but “the most astonishing cutting has taken place in New Haven.” Crawford obtained an injunction and got the Mayor personally involved in reviewing the film, resulting in more thorough censorship of the racist scenes than anywhere else, noted The Crisis. To make sure the scenes stayed cut, Crawford got a ticket to every screening.

In 1917, the NAACP scored another legal victory in a defense of black soldiers accused of inciting unrest in a segregated town, and won. Crawford highlighted this and other victories at the national meeting of Prince Hall Masons and urged that they support the NAACP’s work. By 1920 the NAACP was receiving strong support from fraternal organizations and their sister groups. At an annual meeting in Detroit, the leader of the New Orleans branch of the Daughters of Isis, a Masonic affiliate, presented a check for $57 – half her salary – to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Contributions also came from Eastern Star, another Masonic sorority. Through the following decades Crawford kept Masons’ attention on what the NAACP was doing nationwide for civil rights.

The Masonic ideal of articulate civic discourse gained, in Crawford’s hands, a sharper edge. When the brutality of lynching continued to leave roughly 80 dead every year, Crawford supported the NAACP campaign against lynching with an open letter in the New Haven paper urging passage of a federal anti-lynching law, in which he acidly cited a recent Supreme Court decision on out-of-season bird hunting. “A white Georgian who kills a wild goose or a woodcock in the closed season will find himself facing a heavy fine or imprisonment,” wrote Crawford. “He may kill a Negro citizen, however, at any time with perfect impunity. The federal government does not concern itself with the matter, and under the laws of Georgia there are no closed seasons for Negroes.” He concluded by affirming a courtroom fight for civil rights, which was not at all obvious in 1922: “The statute book is the only recourse which a civilized state has against assaults upon its mores.”

Before long Crawford assumed the leadership of the Prince Hall Masons’ northern jurisdiction. Along with supporting litigation for civil rights, he guided the Masons toward mutual recognition with the northern branch of white Masons. “Race prejudice is a communicable disease,” Crawford said. “Usually the most effective measure against its spread is exposure to the truth.”

Thurgood Marshall, who joined the NAACP’s Legal Defense Unit in 1935, was himself a Prince Hall Mason. He grew up in Baltimore where, he would later tell interviewers, the National Urban League in 1930 found a brand of segregation “more rigid than any other city in the country, including Jackson, Mississippi. I know this is almost unbelievable, but it’s true.” Outside a few African-American enclaves, Baltimore businesses offered no toilet facilities for Negroes. “I remember one day, I had to go, and the only thing I could do was get on a trolley car and try to get home,” Marshall recalled. “And I did get almost in the house, when I ruined the front doorsteps. That gives you an idea what we went through.”

In early 1954 Crawford was appointed to be corporation counsel for New Haven, the first African American to hold such a high public office in the state. Crawford was 76 years old. That spring the Supreme Court rendered its decision on Brown v. Board of Education, ending segregation in public schools. Du Bois called the decision “unexpected and extraordinary,” and later wrote that for him, “this success was beyond anything I had dreamed.”

Crawford, too, was clearly moved but perhaps less surprised. At a Masonic banquet in Philadelphia, he spoke of the long path to that moment and said that through fraternal organizations, African Americans “first learned the power of a common cause.” He saw it globally: “A Prince Hall Mason has an inescapable identification” with people of color around the world, he declared. From Greenland to Africa to India, he said, “geography cannot diminish your inevitable concern nor your inescapable attachment. You are in Little Rock, Arkansas, even though a postman leaves your mail at a street address in Pittsburgh. You are in Montgomery, Alabama even though you vote from Manhattan. You are in Johannesburg, South Africa even though a census taker registers you on the south side of Chicago… Be proud to be a Negro American. Be proud to be a Negro Mason.”

Crawford led the northern branch of Prince Hall Masons for nearly a half century. In 1966, a senior housing project in New Haven was dedicated in his honor with the governor, Marian Anderson, and Roy Wilkins attending. The next year, Crawford watched his Masonic brother Thurgood Marshall get confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. A photo of Prince Hall leaders around that time shows the two together, with Crawford uncharacteristically smiling.

White Masons in Connecticut were the first to recognize Prince Hall Masonic lodges officially, in 1995. Most states followed suit, yet today white Masons in several southern states still refuse to accept Prince Hall Masonry as legitimate.

Within view of the towering temple of my grandfather’s white Masonic lodge, Alexandria’s Prince Hall Masonic lodge operates from a little bungalow near a subway station. Lee Roy Steele, its Historian Emeritus, is in his 90s but clearly remembers the segregated city and the duality in Masonry that mirrored daily life. “At the bus stop you were the last one they let on the bus. That didn’t make any sense, for one thing, because you’d have to squeeze past everyone who had already gotten on to get to the back.” Nothing diminished his pride in being a Prince Hall Mason; he recalls Thurgood Marshall at regional meetings. “I enjoyed every bit of it,” says Steele. “You feel good being in an organization for 62 years.” For him, the organization’s role in advancing civil rights is obvious even though few non-Masons these days know it.


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  4. Very good recap of Crawfords’s story. I serve as the Grand Historian of the institution he led for years—the United Supreme Council. I would like to get in contact with to discuss.

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