The New York Times
Black Member Tests Message of Masons in Georgia Lodges
July 2, 2009
By SHAILA DEWAN and ROBBIE BROWN
But some of their fellow Masons here in Georgia are spoiling the message.
In June, the Worshipful Master, or leader, of the Gate City Lodge was served with complaints from two other lodges, whose Worshipful Masters were upset that Gate City had admitted a “nonwhite man” to its ranks.
Although the rules of Freemasonry do not say that members must be white, and there are numerous Hispanics, Asians and other ethnicities represented in lodges across the state, the Grand Master of Georgia decreed that the complaints would be heard in a Masonic trial that could have resulted in expulsion of a lodge or members of it. In response, Gate City (the name is an old nickname for Atlanta) filed a lawsuit in state court seeking an injunction to prevent its charter from being revoked.
The “nonwhite man” whose presence had caused such a fuss is Victor Marshall, a shy, 26-year-old African-American Army reservist who has been eagerly studying the secret catechisms of the Masons for almost a year. Mr. Marshall, who has the Army rank of specialist, said he was attracted to the Masons because of the group’s spirit of volunteerism.
“I’ve been interested in the Freemasons for a very long time,” he said in an interview. “It took me a while to find my place and get up the courage to try and join.”
Mr. Marshall investigated historically black Masonic lodges, which are part of an entirely separate organization known as Prince Hall Masonry, but said he felt most at home at the Gate City Lodge, a predominantly white Masonic group where officers attend in tuxedos and regular members wear suits and ties. Recent Gate City programs have included talks by Hindu priests, a Mozart recital (the composer was a Mason) and a visit from an Auschwitz survivor.
After petitioning to join, Mr. Marshall moved up through the ranks, becoming a Master Mason, giving him the right to visit other lodges.
Mr. Marshall was actually the second black member of Gate City, said David Llewellyn, a member and lawyer who is representing the lodge. But he was the first to attract notice, when he and Masons from across the state attended the 275th anniversary of a lodge in Savannah.
“There were ill-informed brethren who were surprised that there was an African-American brother,” Mr. Llewellyn said, “and some of them were very upset.”
After questions were raised, the Grand Master, J. Edward Jennings Jr., sent out an e-mail message saying that Mr. Marshall was a legitimate Mason “and should be received as such.”
But Mr. Jennings then agreed to convene a court to hear the complaints against Gate City’s leader, Michael J. Bjelajac. Mr. Jennings has declined to comment, but some Masons have said that he was simply following the rules, while others have speculated that he wanted to have the matter settled in the open.
After The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote about the conflict on Tuesday, the internal complaints were dropped, but the lawsuit stands.
“What I hope to see out of this is a reaffirmation of our real principles,” Mr. Llewellyn said.
Freemasonry has traditionally been a tolerant and diverse fraternity that forbids discussion of politics, religion and other potentially divisive topics, said Christopher L. Hodapp, a 32nd-degree Mason and the author of “Freemasons for Dummies.”
Mr. Hodapp scoffed at the complaints against Gate City, which said in part that the lodge had violated the “ancient landmarks” and “immemorial usages” of Freemasonry.
The authors of the complaints, Douglas Hubert Ethridge, the Worshipful Master of the Metro Daylight Lodge No. 743 in Chamblee, and Starling A. Hicks, the Worshipful Master of the Philologia Lodge No. 178 in Conyers, both Atlanta suburbs, declined to comment. In court papers, Mr. Llewellyn wrote that when he called Mr. Etheridge to discuss the lawsuit, Mr. Etheridge said, “To hell with you, buddy,” and hung up.
Despite its principles of tolerance, Freemasonry in the United States has historically been divided between so-called mainstream Masons and traditionally black Prince Hall Masons. The mainstream Masons did not recognize the Prince Hall group until about 1990, when a thaw began in Connecticut and spread to all but 10 states, said Richard E. Fletcher, the executive secretary of the Masonic Service Association in Silver Spring, Md.
Mutual recognition does not alter the structure of either organization, each of which has a grand lodge in every state, but it does allow members to visit one another’s lodges. The main holdouts are the former Confederate states, including Georgia. Last year, a West Virginia Masonic leader was expelled for proposing to loosen the rules that kept the state’s mainstream chapters all white.
Five or six years ago, the Prince Hall Masons in Georgia approached the mainstream Masons about recognition, said Ramsey Davis Jr., Grand Master of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge in Riverdale, Ga. But the group was not interested, Mr. Davis said.
“There’s deep-rooted racism in the leadership,” he said. “I’ve had many calls from white Masons to say they cannot understand why things are this way.”
Mr. Marshall’s Masonic brethren have struggled to shield him from the ugly battle, a gesture he appreciates.
“If this would have come up before, it would have changed my views of Freemasons,” he said. “These individuals, they don’t speak for Freemasonry; they just speak for themselves.”
A version of this article appeared in print on July 3, 2009, on page A15 of the New York edition.