A Few Good Men: Inside the Prince Hall Lodge

Photo by Rimas Zailskas

Photo by Rimas Zaiskas

Twice a month for the past 51 years, Eugene Jones drives over to Booker Street in Asheville, just south of I-40, to join 18 other men in an endeavor that’s both humanitarian and self-improving in nature. Brother Jones, as his fellow Masons call him, is a member of Asheville’s Twentieth Century Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons, one of two such Asheville lodges in the Prince Hall tradition of Freemasonry with a primarily African-American membership. In his 51 years with the Lodge, Brother Jones has held every office from secretary to Worshipful Master, the equivalent of the lodge’s president; and, at 81, is not only the Lodge’s longest-serving member but its oldest.

Back in 1962, Brother Eugene was working at Mission Hospital when he first heard of Prince Hall Masonry. “Two men I worked with started telling me about it,” Brother Jones remembers. “They said I should get into it, and I was curious. There was a mystery there, and I felt the training as you went along made you a better person. We enlighten young minds to what Freemasonry is all about. We instill high values, so these young men grow up in a way that will be fulfilling and useful to the community.”

While there have been as many as 60 members, the Lodge now counts 19 Brothers, according to James Campbell Jr., the Lodge’s secretary and another long-serving member. “I’ve been a Mason for 17 years,” Brother Campbell says. “I’ve always belonged to this same Lodge, and was the first of my family to become a Mason. I enjoy the camaraderie with the brethren.”

Prince Hall Freemasonry has American roots as old as mainstream Freemasonry’s in the United States, all the way back to pre-Revolutionary times when the eponymous Prince Hall, a free-born African-American, was initiated into a Masonic lodge in Boston established by the British, along with 14 other black men attracted by the Mason’s basic principles of liberty, equality and peace. In 1784, after the war and the British departure, Prince Hall and his brethren were given a Lodge Warrant from the Grand Lodge of England, the closest such a diffusely organized endeavor as Freemasonry has to a headquarters, allowing the establishment of Boston’s African Lodge Number 459. It became the ancestor of all present-day Prince Hall Lodges in America and made Prince Hall Masonry the oldest social organization for African-Americans in the United States.

Photo by Rimas Zailskas

Photo by Rimas Zailskas

Racism and segregation over the next 200 years made it nearly impossible for an African-American man to join a white Masonic lodge, encouraging the growth of Prince Hall lodges and an exclusively African-American membership. While the Prince Hall lodges remained constitutionally outside Freemasonry’s predominantly white population, their structure reflected that of their white counterparts, so that by the turn of the 20th century, most states had a Prince Hall Grand Lodge with ties to a collection of smaller lodges throughout each jurisdiction. North Carolina’s Grand Lodge in Durham was founded in 1870 and now serves as the organizational hub for the state’s 461 lodges and 18,000 members.

Even today in the Deep South, there remain some Prince Hall lodges that are not recognized — are not “regular,” in Masonic parlance — by their mostly white counterparts. “But that’s pretty much all changed now,” says Brother Jones whose lodge, like all seven Prince Hall lodges in the Asheville and Hendersonville area, have full constitutional ties (are “in amity” with, as Masons say) with Grand Lodges in 38 states and 20 countries, including Serbia, the Czech Republic and Israel. “Freemasonry is a universal organization,” Brother Jones points out. “There’s no difference in ritual. There’s no difference between black and white.”

Indeed, the regalia worn by Brother Jones, Brother Campbell and their fellow Masons is identical to any other lodge, regardless of ethnicity. Members wear the white apron and white gloves emblazoned with the Masonic square and compass, observe certain rules of conduct known as Obligations and hold to certain principles called Landmarks. Charitable outreach is a hallmark of Freemasonry, and in the case of the Twentieth Century Lodge takes the forms of scholarships and fundraising events for local causes, including an Easter Egg hunt for local children. Each year, the state’s Grand Lodge holds a “Lodge Of Sorrow,” a highly ritualized memorial service for recently deceased members described by one online Masonic forum member as “somber, impressive and sobering.”

“Masonry is not a secretive organization, but it’s an organization with secrets,” says Brother Campbell who, in addition to his duties as Lodge secretary also serves as the regional representative, or Deputy Master, for Western North Carolina. “We’re very visible. We take good men and make them better.”

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