Carmen Williamson, 89, recalls the first time he visited the “best picture show house” in Toledo, the opulent, legendary Paramount Theater downtown.
He was 13 and handed the cashier some change, expecting to get a ticket to join his friends who were waiting on the third floor, which was reserved for “people of color,” he said. Instead, the theater employee turned hostile and discouraged him from entering.
“It was like that back then,” Mr. Williamson recalls. “There weren’t a lot of social opportunities for persons of color. For years all we had were the church and the Masons. There were some other places like the Cold Spot and the Elks clubs; those were places where you went to party and drink liquor. The Masons were a more stoic group.”
After more than 60 years with Toledo’s Amazon Lodge, Mr. Williamson is now the senior member of the Toledo lodge of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Ohio, Free and Accepted Masons. The black Masonic lodge, 638 N. University St. off Nebraska Avenue near Parkside Boulevard, is celebrating its 150th anniversary with public and private celebrations throughout the year.
“It’s important to remember your history,” said Mr. Williamson, the group’s longtime, unofficial historian and photographer. “If you don’t pay respect to your elders, what happens? You lose that respect for your elders and your history.”
The Toledo Prince Hall Masonic Lodge is the fourth oldest chartered black Masonic group in Ohio, Mr. Williamson said. The first three groups in Ohio were established in Cincinnati.
The black Masonic lodge is the oldest chartered lodge — black or white — in Toledo, according to Mr. Williamson and confirmed by other local lodges.
It is one of the oldest of the 21 Masonic lodges still in existence in Lucas, Ottawa, Wood, and Sandusky counties. There are about 8,000 registered Masons among the remaining groups, said Michael Shobe, executive secretary for the Valley of Toledo, Scottish Rite, based in Maumee.
Claims of being the oldest Masonic lodge are complicated because many groups have folded or merged in recent years because of declining membership, said Mr. Shobe, a 33rd Degree Mason.
For example, the Maumee-based Northern Light Lodge F&AM was chartered March 5, 1818, according to research by Bryon Stickles of Maumee, historian and past master of that lodge.
Because of waning membership, it merged with Calumet Lodge in 1997 and Sanford L. Collins Lodge in 1995.
Decline in members
Membership is slowly declining for the aging Scottish Rite Masons of Toledo, which covers 15 counties, Mr. Shobe said. Membership is not divided by counties, but the total membership is 2,350, he said.
The Scottish Rite’s Masonic Temple was on Heatherdowns Boulevard from 1969 to 2007. But declining membership prompted the group to relocate to a smaller building at 1720 Indian Wood Circle in Maumee.
The Zenobia Shrine also had a longtime presence in downtown Toledo, opening its lodge at Madison Avenue and 15th Street in 1949. The Masonic group also said good-bye to its longtime Toledo home and broke ground for a new headquarters in Perrysburg Township in 2009. The new lodge was built at 8048 Broadstone Blvd. in the Cedar Business Center.
Prince Hall Masonic local membership has remained consistent — about 150 for more than a decade — although Mr. Williamson says the group is getting older and needs to develop a stronger recruiting plan.
So who and what are Masons? The response is so rapid and forcefully stated that Grand Master James Willis, Sr., 63, gives the impression that he’s been waiting a lifetime to answer the question.
“The Masons are not a religion or cult,” said Mr. Willis, pastor of Toledo’s St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church. “The Masons are a brotherhood. That’s what this is about. In a church, the job is to help the congregation develop a relationship with Jesus Christ. The Masons’ responsibility is to help members establish a relationship with other brothers, to become a brotherhood.”
Black and white Masonic organizations share the same morals and principles, Pastor Willis and Mr. Shobe agreed. Masons are to be “composed of good men with a belief in the Almighty, dedicated to self-improvement and uplifting of the human spirit; through community service, charitable deeds, assisting our widows and orphans and guiding our youth,” according to a Master Mason Handbook.
The Masons have three degrees of Masonry, with the 3rd Degree earning the member the title of Master Mason, Mr. Willis said. A Master Mason is someone who has, during the first two degrees, learned to subdue his passions and learned silence and obedience.
A Master Mason also symbolically has mastered the intellectual and philosophical arts and sciences and crossed the threshold from the outer to the inner, from the material to the spiritual, according to the Master Mason Handbook.
To proceed further, the Master Mason can pursue an honorary 33rd Degree level, which can be accomplished by service and merit, Mr. Willis said.
The Scottish Rite operates a little differently than other lodges, putting more emphasis on philosophical and ethical teachings, Mr. Shobe said.
Both groups occasionally join each other for ceremonies, mostly to promote brotherhood between black and white Masons, Mr. Shobe and Mr. Willis said.
Both men said they would love to see the day when black and white Masonic groups merge and put an end to what has become mostly a self-imposed segregation.
“I think it would work,” said Mr. Shobe, who points out that his organization has a couple of black members. “It doesn’t make sense to have separate groups for black Masons and white Masons.”
Prince Hall has no white members, Pastor Willis said. Although he would like to see more interaction between black and white Masonic groups, he realizes it’s going to take time.
It wasn’t until 1994 that Steven Reese, Sr., a black Prince Hall Mason from Cincinnati, and Carl Lindner, a white Mason with the Ancient & Accepted Scottish Rite, came together and in a symbolic gesture shook hands before 900 black and white Masons at a conference.
“That was also the day they [the Scottish Rite] officially recognized the existence of Prince Hall Masons,” said Pastor Willis, whose voice trembles with emotion when he talks about it.
Despite that monumental moment, Pastor Willis said he doesn’t believe there will be a day when black and white Masons truly stop segregating themselves.
“You will always have those who have their beliefs,” he said. “You cannot change others’ beliefs. But you can pray that our brothers will someday change their beliefs.”
A segregated past
The black Masons are the product of American segregation.
According to Masonic history, the International Mason board, based in Britain, chartered the first Masonic group in the United States, which was based in Pennsylvania in 1731.
Shortly before the Revolutionary War, British soldiers accepted 14 black Americans into their Masonic ranks. After the war, Prince Hall, a black abolitionist, and the other 13 black soldiers applied for and were denied membership to a white lodge in Boston.
Undeterred, Mr. Hall petitioned England to charter a black Masonic organization. The request prompted a quick backlash by white Masons in the United States, who protested and lobbied that the request be denied, Mr. Williamson said.
The King of England approved Mr. Hall’s charter request and the first black Mason Lodge 459 was established in 1775. Prince Hall served as the organization’s first Grand Master and would attain the rank of Worshipful Master before dying in 1807 at the age of 72.
Most historians credit England for organizing the first Masonic group in 1717.
Other historians argue that the English merely took a system created and already used in Egypt for hundreds of years and applied it to the Masons.
The Masons’ origins can be traced to 12th century Egypt, said Jack Ford, former Toledo mayor and current councilman. Mr. Ford, who joined the Prince Hall Masons in 1994, has done considerable research on the group’s history.
In an article titled “Freemasonry and Islam: What do They Share?” author Fahim A. Knight points out that black people in ancient Egypt and Africa had developed a sophisticated system of initiation called the Egyptian Mystery System during the 12th century.
It’s also believed that Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras — the philosophical fathers of masonry — were educated in astronomy, music, geometry, arithmetic, logic, rhetoric, and grammar in Egypt by African wise men, Mr. Knight argues.
The Masons are about developing relationships, Mr. Ford said.
“They do a lot to contribute to the community,” he said, noting that the group funds youth enrichment programs and college scholarships and participates in many community service projects.
Masons are taught the meaning of brotherhood and practice it, Pastor Willis said.
Brotherhood includes helping a fellow Mason in need, whether it’s offering encouragement or help in finding a job.
A lot of what the Masons do is “networking,” said Mr. Ford, who became a 33rd Degree Mason in 2003, during his second year as mayor. “They were men of high honor in the community who you went to if you needed a bank loan or legal assistance.”
Historically, many of Toledo’s most prominent African-American men have been Masons, including James B. Simmons, a local attorney who was the first African-American elected to city council in 1935, Mr. Ford said. Among the early local black Masons are also a long list of local businessmen, clergy, physicians, and educators — pillars of the local black community.
Current members include Pastor Willis, Mr. Ford, former Mayor Mike Bell, his father, Norman Bell, and the Rev. Otis Gordon, Jr., senior pastor of Warren AME Church on Collingwood Boulevard.
Throughout its history, Toledo’s black Mason group has had several members serve as the state’s Most Worshipful Grand Master, or state leader for the Prince Hall Masons.
Most recently, Pastor Willis served as Ohio’s Most Worshipful Grand Master from 2006 to 2009. William E. Clemens was elected state Grand Master 1902-1909; Everett Gatliff, 1930-1934; Lloyd H. Kimbrough, 1947-1949, and Mr. Simmons, 1955-57, according to Prince Hall Masonic records.
Harry Smith, a General Motors employee, was named an honorary state Grand Master in 1981. In 1980, Mr. Smith was the recipient of a rare honor — the No. 1 spot on the 25th Imperial Potentate of the Ancient Egyptian Arabic Order Nobles Mystic Shrine of North and South America and its Jurisdiction.
Toledo’s Prince Hall Masons’ criteria for membership include being a male who is at least 18 years old, being an Ohio citizen, being of good moral character, having a personal belief in a supreme being, and agreeing to join of “your own free will and accord.”
A Mason of note
Nobody in the history of the local Masonic group was held in higher esteem than Clarence Walker, Jr., who died at age 87 in October.
He started his career as a city tax officer but by 1966 was serving as director of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. Three years later he took a job with the U.S. Justice Department, leading community relations efforts and helping Detroit Public Schools adhere to a court order to desegregate.
Mr. Walker was a 33rd Degree Mason. He served on the Masonic United Supreme Council, which consisted of 24 members from throughout the world who make decisions that affect all Mason organizations.
“He was such a big man in the Masons,” Mr. Ford said. “You would feel a sense of pride when you saw him in a parade or doing something in public.”
Eric Walker discovered how beloved Mr. Walker, his father, was during the funeral.
“Mr. Willis told me to expect about 200 Masons,” Eric Walker said. “More than 1,000 people turned out for the funeral.
“I was overwhelmed at the number of Masons who showed up.”
A fading tradition
As far back as Eric Walker can remember, his father would attend Masonic meetings every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. He said his grandfather and uncle were Masons too.
The tradition appears to have ended with his father, admits Eric Walker, an only child, who acknowledges that he has no interest in joining the group.
“I think for my father’s generation, the church and Masons were the only things available to them for socialization — at least until the 1960s and civil rights. Things are different for me. I have more options.
“I think for my father, being in the Masons gave him the opportunity for a high degree of mentoring and of transferring his knowledge.”
The issue of how to attract younger members is a major topic among Masonic leadership, Mr. Williamson said.
Since at least 2000, membership has held at about 150 members, Mr. Williamson said. But the group has grown older; very few members in their 20s or 30s are joining, he said.
The group’s leadership isn’t doing a very good job of appealing to younger people, he said.
“No, they are not,” Mr. Williamson said. “They are not forward-looking. How do you entice them?
“When they ask what we do, we say, we’ll tell you after you join. When they ask us what are the benefits of joining, we tell them they’ll find out after they join. That’s crazy. Young people have a lot more options now. They don’t have time for that.”