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Divided they stand

Masons in N.C. still split into white, black as membership declines

g and compass

The Raleigh N.C. News

Sunday, December 7, 2003

Divided they stand

Masons in N.C. still split into white, black as membership declines


On a warm Saturday in November, before a crowd of 800 packed into the pews of the L.N. Forbes Tabernacle Baptist Church in Wilson, two men -- one black, the other white -- stood face to face for the first time.

"What you see here now is what some of you never thought you would see," said Milton "Toby" Fitch Jr., a Superior Court judge who had just been installed as Most Worshipful Grand Master of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Free & Accepted Masons of North Carolina, the state's black Masonic group.

Fitch then grasped the hand of Leonard Safrit Jr., a Beaufort businessman who will soon lead the state's white Masons, and held it aloft.

With a combined membership of nearly 70,000, North Carolina's two statewide Masonic organizations each carry on the centuries-old tenets of Freemasonry.

But officially, each pretends the other does not exist.

This vestige of segregation further isolates Masons at a time when their numbers and influence are on the wane. Membership in the larger, white lodge has fallen from 73,000 at its peak in 1981 to about 52,000, even as the state's population has soared. The average age of lodge members statewide is 61.

Similar declines nationwide have forced changes upon a fraternity with medieval roots and a penchant for secrecy. In Ohio, New York and other states, Masons have opened up in once unthinkable ways: advertising, holding open houses and shortening initiations for new members from weeks or months to one day.

But North Carolina Masons cling to tradition, nowhere more clearly than in the split along racial lines.

In September, the white group -- the Grand Lodge of the Ancient, Free & Accepted Masons of North Carolina -- decided to maintain the division. By a vote of 495 to 456, delegates to the annual convention rejected a resolution recognizing Prince Hall Masons, making North Carolina one of 14 state Masonic lodges, mostly in the South, that still refuse to accept Prince Hall members as brother Masons.

The outgoing "grand master" of the white lodge, Charles Lewis Jr. of Wilmington, lamented the the decision.

"The ugly face of racism surfaced," Lewis wrote in the organization's newsletter. "This issue will not go away. It is a cause which is right, just and Masonic."

Safrit, Lewis' successor, sat anonymously through Fitch's two-hour installation ceremony. He was one of only a few whites in the church. Only when it was all over did Fitch call out his name, asking whether Safrit had accepted his invitation. Fitch said he plans to attend Safrit's installation as grand master next weekend.

Safrit, president of Safrit's Building Supply in Beaufort, said he will make recognition of Prince Hall a priority over the next year.

"We're folks who by nature should be searching for light," Safrit said. "We're trying to find the correct answers."

Centuries of tradition

Many white Masons think refusing to recognize Prince Hall contradicts the organization's mission: to better society "by teaching the ancient and enduring philosophical tenets of brotherly love, relief and truth."

Freemasonry goes back at least 800 years, to a class of master builders who were free to roam Europe erecting castles and cathedrals. The early lodges offered Freemasons a place to find fellowship and teach their craft.

Over time, lodges accepted non-builders attracted by the camaraderie and moral teachings. But the titles, elaborate rituals, even the secret handshake the builders used to identify each other, have survived.

Masonry's rolls once swelled with powerful names, including at least 14 U.S. presidents and 40 North Carolina governors, Terry Sanford and Luther Hodges among them. Even now, every decent-sized town has a Masonic lodge -- about 900 between the two groups statewide -- though some struggle to stay open.

Hundreds still join the Masons every year. They say they want to become better men or simply be among men they respect and do some good. Masonic charities include the Masonic Home for Children in Oxford, an orphanage.

Stewart Hodges, who joined Cary Lodge No. 198 in March at age 18, followed his father, grandfather, uncle and two cousins into the fraternity.

"I figured if everybody in my family was doing it, it must be good," said Hodges, now a sophomore at Appalachian State University.

The Prince Hall Masons date from the 1780s in Massachusetts, when a man named Prince Hall helped start the first Masonic lodge for blacks in America. After the Civil War, Prince Hall Masons established the North Carolina Grand Lodge, now headquartered in Durham.

For the state's two grand lodges to officially ignore each other makes no sense, said Fitch, a former majority leader of the state House. After the September vote made the issue moot, Prince Hall Masons tabled a proposal to recognize their white counterparts.

At the same time, Fitch said, he does not think Prince Hall needs recognition from the white lodge.

"We are truly legitimate," he said. "We know where we come from."

To officially recognize Prince Hall, the white Grand Lodge, based in Raleigh, would need to change The Code, a set of rules that governs local lodges. Amendments are common. Among the changes approved at the September convention was one that allows dancing in the lodges.

In the 1970s, the Masons removed the part of The Code that barred blacks from becoming members in North Carolina, but few have joined. Prince Hall lodges are also open to all races but remain overwhelmingly black.

Two years ago, a four-member commission of white Masons that included former Gov. Jim Martin studied the lineage and rules of Prince Hall and determined it worthy of recognition. The commission proposed simply acknowledging Prince Hall without merging the groups in any way.

Failure to do even that much puts Freemasonry's future in North Carolina at risk, said former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Exum, who headed the commission.

"The Grand Lodge is going to find it more and more difficult to attract young members so long as this schism exists between the two lodges," Exum said.

No one at the convention spoke against the resolution. Finding Masons willing to defend the decision is difficult.

"Frankly, they know in their hearts that their view is unacceptable," said Ric Carter of Raleigh, a Mason who edits the organization's newsletter.

The schism between Masonic Lodges in North Carolina followed Army Capt. Sam Lee all the way to the deserts of Iraq.

Lee, who is white and "master" of Hiram Lodge No. 40 in Raleigh, received permission from the Grand Lodge to hold Masonic meetings in a tent during a six-month tour with his National Guard unit earlier this year.

But The Code of North Carolina forced Lee to exclude Prince Hall Masons. Seeing the hurt this caused men in his unit, Lee stopped the meetings.

Lee, a budget analyst with the state, represents a new generation of Masons. He's 33 and leads Wake County's oldest Masonic lodge, Hiram No. 40, which was founded in 1799 and meets in a stone temple off Glenwood Avenue.

The average age of Hiram 40's members is 70. Death has reduced its ranks from about 700 in the late 1970s to about 300. Only about 20 are truly active.

"Some of the folks want to come, but they don't drive at night or their wife is infirm and they need to stay with her," said Chuck Rouse, 40, the lodge's secretary.

About 35 men, some in tuxedos, turned out for a November meeting to "raise" two new brothers to master Mason, the last of three degrees, or symbolic steps, to becoming a Mason.

On a checkerboard tile floor, about a dozen took seats arranged in a square, facing an open Bible on a wooden altar. Most of 200 seats in the auditorium remained empty. "In their heyday, these seats would be filled," Lee said.

When all were inside, lodge member Elliott Swindell closed the auditorium door, equipped with a peephole, and took his place outside, a sword on a table at the ready in the unlikely event non-Masons tried to enter.

Most Masons acknowledge their brotherhood is shrinking, but are quick to add that groups such as Rotary, Lions, even country clubs are losing members, too.

Few Masons cite the division between black and white for their decline. Ben Spearman, who has seen the ranks of Prince Hall Masons thin since he joined more than 20 years ago, shrugs off the racial divide.

"With a lot of states, the racial lines don't matter," he said. "We still live in the South."

Spearman served on the honor guard at Fitch's inauguration. As a "knight templar", the apex of one of the rites of Masonry, he wore a uniform with two rows of gold buttons down the front, epaulets on the shoulders and a hat an admiral might have worn 200 years ago, covered with white feathers from forehead to shoulders. A 3-foot sword hung in a gold sheath from his waist.

"Young people do not take to Masonry as we did," said Spearman, 56, a building contractor and member of St. Anna Lodge No. 350 in Garner. "There's more things to do now."

Other Masons offer similar reasons: People just aren't interested in getting involved in the community, they say, or want activities the whole family can share, not clubs where men gather by themselves and post a guard at the door.

Change is daunting

But some admit the peculiarities of Freemasonry have hurt.

The insistence on modesty and secrecy, for example, makes the organization easy to overlook. Dave Milidonis, a member of Cary No. 198, said he encounters families who first learn their father was a Mason at his funeral.

Also, Masonic law forbids the brotherhood from soliciting new members.

"The objective is not to attract membership," said Milidonis, 52, who runs a leadership training business. "The objective is to set an example so that people will come up to you and want to be a Mason."

Leonard Safrit Jr. said he'll appoint a commission to look at how Masons in other states have raised their profile to bring in new members. Still, Safrit said he's not sure he supports drastic change in North Carolina.

"It's tough for me to look at an organization like ours that's hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years old and do away with something they've always done," he said.

But Safrit has no doubts in attacking the tradition that keeps North Carolina's white Masons from recognizing black Masons. Younger Masons such as Chuck Rouse at Hiram 40 say they, too, will fight for an organization they see as otherwise good.

Rouse initiated the drive to allow dancing in the lodges; many Masons rent out their halls to others and found their options limited by the dance ban. Even so, the resolution failed on the first try.

Rouse said the Prince Hall resolution will eventually pass, too.

"Some traditions die hard," he said. "And a few traditions are going to die when we have a few more funerals."

Staff writer Richard Stradling can be reached at 829-4739 or rstradli@newsobserver.com.

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