The original title of this article was going to be something jarring, taken from the exact quote from the Grand Lodge Proceedings in 1846-- "...and admit no negro..." It was repulsive--and it was that way on purpose. Nothing gives you the creeps and awful feelings like typing something like that out. And yet, it was designed to evoke a visceral reaction. However, I decided against it because I wanted people to actually read the article rather than react on social media. Although--that still may be the outcome. I hope not though. But now that you're here, settle in for this bit of history as it pertains to the Grand Lodge of Illinois and the United States of America.
I will write about a few concepts within this article, which will be somewhat spun together. As a Fraternity, we have evidentiary proof that we are not always on the right side of history, and I am not judging the past by the standards of today. Right is right, no matter the era. I’ll point out that we’ve worked hard to correct these injustices. I also want to point out that the kinds of men within our ranks are not always the greatest of men, despite their service to Freemasonry. And finally, that it behooves us to keep a watchful eye on our Lodges and the men coming in--that we might not allow those men who would stain our reputation to become anything of greatness, but instead, a rejected petition.
This country has always been at odds with itself; make no mistake. Sure from time to time, the greatness of America has shown as a beacon of light to the world at large. When we come together for a common purpose--this is when we shine brightest. Winning World Wars with the help of our friendly allies, liberating the unfortunate abroad in the world, and even things as hyper-charged as universal healthcare.
America cares about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But the truth is, it’s when it was convenient to do so that we had this in mind. The proof is in our foundational documents in the things we later addressed in the Bill of Rights.
Freemasonry, however, may be different. While we have made strides toward equality with our fellow man sooner than the rest of the country in many respects, it was not without its controversy and stains within the transactions of our Grand Lodge’s history. What follows is an accurate account of Illinois’s position on African Americans and Freemasonry. It will be upsetting to read--and yet I urge you to read on and find the light at the end of the tunnel because there is a light--and it’s beautiful.
In 1846 the Grand Lodge expressed the following opinion in the form of a resolution:
"That this Grand Lodge is unqualifiedly opposed to the admission of negroes or mullatos into Lodges under this jurisdiction."In order to clarify the matter, the following resolution was adopted:
1. "Resolved, that all subordinate Lodges under this jurisdiction be instructed to admit no negro or mullato as visitor or otherwise, under any circumstances whatsoever."Later these two paragraphs were adopted as Sections 81 and 82 of the Grand Lodge By-Laws.
2. "That if any Lodges under this jurisdiction violate this expressed will of this Grand Lodge, it shall be the duty of the Most Worshipful Grand Master of this State at once to arrest their charter."
After the Civil War, the matter was revived and discussed at the Grand Lodge session of 1865, 19 years after the egregious resolutions. A motion was made to repeal these two sections, but no action was taken on the motion because of the diversity of opinion on the subject.
In 1869 there was presented a motion reading in part as follows:
"Whereas, Masonry teaches the universal brotherhood of men, upon the common level of Masonic manhood, therefore, --Resolved, that section 81 and section 82, Grand Lodge By-Laws are in direct violation of the true spirit and teachings of Masonry, and are hereby repealed."The matter was held over for a vote at the next Grand Lodge session.
Finally, 24 long years after the adoption, at the 1870 Grand Lodge sessions, the Grand Lodge adopted a new Constitution and By-Laws, and sections 81 and 82 were shown as having been "repealed."
Our friends, our Brothers could visit--sort of. Regardless of the greater good that came from this atrocious set of rules being repealed, it was the practice and still is the practice in some Lodges, in some places around the United States, to not admit men of color.
Even an institution such as Freemasonry had members who adamantly opposed sitting in a lodge with a black man. And yet, we are supposed to be better than this. The knowledge that such a contingent of our Craft was opposed to repealing these sections gives way to a revelation that the men you surround yourself with might hold onto racist ideologies. Freemasonry is not immune to this. Every organization on the planet has its members who are less than worthy.
Whether it’s an ideological issue revolving around race or even political far-reaching factions--they’re with us. Men who associate with these groups either by being a member or simply sharing of their propaganda just shouldn’t be here. To quote our Brothers from 1869, our members who are aligning with these groups and ideologies are “in direct violation of the true spirit and teachings of Masonry.”
In 1990, at the Conference of Grand Masters, Most Worshipful Brother Cobb of Virginia addressed the topic of Prince Hall Masonry in which he suggested that recognition be granted to the Prince Hall Grand Lodge. Illinois was there and heard this message.
In 1993, it was noted that there were eight Grand Lodges who now recognized their Prince Hall Grand Lodge counterparts. These were Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Nebraska, North Dakota, Minnesota, Washington, and Wisconsin. It was also noted that other states had at that point assigned committees to look into doing the same. Illinois was not one of them.
By 1996, eleven states had recognized Prince Hall Masonry.
In 1997, PGM Benny Grisham had been in contact with and worked with the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Illinois. There was promise in this that we might be on to something great.
And then, it happened. Brother Thomas P. Sorenson, a Past Master of Triune Lodge No. 422, Past DDGM, and board of Managers for the Children’s Home said it:
“Most Worshipful Master, I move that this Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the State of Illinois grant recognition to the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge F & AM State of Illinois.”
Most Worshipful Grisham stated the motion and asked if there was a second.
“Most Worshipful Grand Master, I am Paul Lynch, Past Master of Triune Lodge No. 422, and I second the motion.”
Grand Master Grisham then asked for discussion. Hearing none, he called for the vote, and it passed. And just like that, Illinois became the 26th Grand Jurisdiction to recognize Prince Hall. In the words of MW Grisham, “It is the right thing to do as men, and as Masons.”
Once again, we see progress in our institution. Albeit, somewhat late. We hold our traditions high, and we are slow to change, but to what end? In 1997, we recognized Prince Hall Masonry, which is synonymous with race and equality in many ways.
Some reading this will begin to retort by claiming that this recognition has everything to do with the legitimacy of origin and not race. This is in some respects legitimate, but more often than not, was and still is a convenient way to maintain Lodges as they were and are used to. In other words, we use our rules as convenient ways to not do anything--to maintain the ranks.
In Freemasonry, we have our rules, our landmarks, and our charges. And frequently, we use these items, these words written so long ago, to govern us in an age of change. Even in the face of cold hard facts, we rally against and hold on for dear life--that nothing should change. We are a progressive moral science, not a stagnant one--so this is really weird, isn’t it?
In this short article, what I hope sticks out is that we, as Freemasons do the right thing. Even if we take forever to do it. And then--we celebrate it like it’s this fantastic thing--we pat ourselves on the back and congratulate ourselves. Because we did something we should have done years or decades ago? I won’t stay cynical for too long here, Brothers.
What I want to say now is that we are all men of God. Men of integrity. Men of good report and who have (mostly) been of good report. No colors. No sexual orientations. No political affiliations. Just Brothers. We move together in unity toward the future--all colors, races, creeds, religions, and political affiliations.
Together, doing the right thing becomes more attainable as more and more of us show that we agree with a direction or a position. We are the Grand Lodges. We are the constituency--the vox populi. We must always be ready to make statements and to work toward a better Fraternity.
As I said, Freemasonry is not immune to having our ranks infiltrated by members of hate groups, criminals, or worse. It is necessary to recognize the right thing to do, just as we did in 1869, and act accordingly. We did it then, and we did it again in 1997. While our current and future challenges are certainly not likely to be race-related, we should ever keep a watchful eye. We should be ready to defend the Craft from those who would soil it with thoughts, actions, and deeds that violate the “true spirit and teachings of Masonry.”