Paul M. Bessel is Past Senior Warden of the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia in Washington, D.C. He has served his Grand Lodge well and often as Chairman of the following committees:
- Library & Museum Committee
- Internet Website Committee
- Masonic Recognition Committee
- Jurisprudence Committee
- Masonic Education Committee
His Grand Lodge has awarded him the coveted Valentine Reintzel Award.
He is the Executive Secretary of the Allen E. Roberts Masonic Leadership Center and Past President of the Library & Museum Association, founding member and Past Master of the Civil War Lodge of Research #1865, a “Fellow” of the Scottish Rite Research Society, one of 40 “Fellows” of the Philalethes Society, Past District Deputy Grand Master for Research Lodges in Virginia, a Past Grand Lodge Officer of the Grand Lodge of Virginia, and a Board member of the Masonic Brotherhood of the Blue-Forget-Me-Not. Brother Bessel is known as “Mr. Masonic Computer Man” having founded and moderated E-Mail message groups for Masonic Education, D.C. Masons, D.C. Scottish Rite and others. He owns and operates one of the largest Masonic information websites in the entire USA
Out of the Shadows revolves around two main themes,
- The National Compact or National Grand Lodge
- Recognition by Mainstream Masonry
Woven around and through these two themes is the history of Prince Hall Freemasonry in the USA.
The book does have a brief chapter on Prince Hall the man but goes out of its way to make a point that the biography of Prince Hall that most Prince Hall Masons are used to reading including his birth at Bridgetown, Barbados, British West Indies was a figment of Prince Hall author William H. Grimshaw’s imagination and has been disputed by many following Prince Hall scholars including Wesley and Walkes. This assessment will play an important part in the National Compact controversy, as we shall soon see.
The National Compact or National Grand Lodge
The National Grand Lodge, say Roundtree and Bessel played a huge part in the expansion of Colored Freemasonry. For sixty years prior to the establishment of the National Grand Lodge, only three independent colored Grand Lodges had been established that could claim their heritage from African Grand Lodge #459. These Grand Lodges were the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Boston, Massachusetts; the First Independent African Grand Lodge of North America (Pennsylvania); and Boyer Grand Lodge (New York). Hiram Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania is usually included but it was irregular until healed at the 1847 convention where these four ratified the National Compact. The National Grand Lodge established nearly all 22 of the Negro Grand Lodges founded between 1847-1878.
Roundtree and Bessel say that the National Grand Lodge was formed for several reasons – to help stamp out irregular and clandestine Negro Freemasonry, to have one ritual for all jurisdictions and to help guide Prince Hall Masonry into an ever-upward accomplishment.
The National Compact never functioned without discord and in essence it did not work well. But these authors credit the National Grand Lodge with spreading Negro Freemasonry across the better part of the USA. “Outside of Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts, Negro Freemasonry was at a standstill in 1847”, say Roundtree and Bessel. “Not until after the establishment of the National Grand Lodge was an impetus given to the growth of Colored Freemasonry”, they added.
From 1847 to 1877/78 The National Grand Lodge functioned in a manner of questioned competence but few disputed its legality or authority. But as the years went by many Grand Lodges withdrew from the Compact until by 1878 it was a much-diminished body. Those that withdrew were known as Independent, Sovereign or States Rights Grand Lodges.
It was after 1878 that the controversy over its status became a contentious and divisive issue that is still with us today. And Roundtree and Bessel are quick to point out that Prince Hall Masons as well as Mainstream Masons have little knowledge of the history of the National Compact, have not studied all the issues surrounding the controversy and refuse to even talk about it.
In a nutshell the controversy centers on whether the National Grand Lodge was legally dissolved and then illegally reconstituted itself thus becoming irregular and clandestine. This is the position that Prince Hall Grand Lodges take today based mainly on the word of Grimshaw who wrote that such dissolution was voted upon and ratified by the necessary majority at a National Convention and the National Compact was disbanded. But some of what Grimshaw has written, as we have already seen, has been discredited and basing this conclusion solely on one man’s discredited word is not acceptable policy say the authors. In so doing they say, Prince Hall Freemasonry is treating the National Compact as predominately white Freemasonry treated it.
What Roundtree and Bessel are saying is that while disbandonment was a proposal in 1878 it never was voted upon and approved. While it may have been wishful thinking that took on a life of its own it never really had a basis in fact because it was never ratified. What the authors say is that, “ It appears that William H. Grimshaw might have taken unofficial resolutions from the Chicago convention that were supposed to be returned to the Grand Lodges for ratification and made them official.” Further investigation performed by these experienced researchers and esteemed journalists point to numerous references in the proceedings of Prince Hall Independent Grand Lodge minutes from 1877 on alluding to the continued existence of the National Compact with no mention of its dissolution.
If this be true then the ramifications are enormous. If the National Compact was never dissolved, and because it was constituted by Grand Lodges tracing their lineage to African Lodge #459 and thus was their offspring, then PHO today cannot be declared irregular or clandestine. The charge against PHO of reforming itself illegally can be reversed against those PHA Lodges that withdrew from The Compact. For if they withdrew and reconstituted themselves then they are clandestine. This argument can be likened to a dog chasing its tail – around and around in circles getting nowhere.
Roundtree and Bessel pull no punches in their condemnation of Prince Hall Masonry today when they say in conclusion, “Without the National Grand Lodge some of today’s Prince Hall Grand Lodges might never have existed! They knew no life other than the National Grand Lodge. They had no other source early in life. Seemingly, they grew up, left home and denounced their parents. Leaders and members of Prince Hall Grand Lodges speak of the National Grand Lodge with total disdain as something that should never have happened, not addressing or even realizing the fact that it is the source of their existence! Many histories of the Grand Lodges that declared their independence from the National Grand Lodge make a brief mention of being a part of the National Grand Lodge.”
Rroundtree and Bessel start us off with this thought.
“One could argue that Masonic recognition of Prince Hall Lodges in the United States is late compared to other institutions; however, unlike the integration process of other institutions, Prince Hall recognition in America comes without legislation, new laws, protests, social uprising, demands for rights, or widespread public accusations of racism. The effort to obtain recognition is not spearheaded by a social action organization. Public accusations by Prince Hall Masons of Masonic rights violations have not been noted. Recognition is truly voluntary because no one is begging or demanding.”
“America was a society in which the south and other regions functioned under Jim Crow Laws, Black codes and legal segregation until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. From 1870 to 1964 it would have been a violation of civil law in virtually all of the southern states and some of the northern states to recognize Prince Hall Masonry, which would have encompassed assembling, and the social acceptance of blacks. Recognition was probably not going to happen before 1968 (last of Civil Rights Acts), and not be overturned, because of the segregation laws and racial tension in America.”
Out of the Shadows answers the question what is recognition?
- An acknowledgment that the Grand Lodge is regular (not clandestine or irregular) and practices Freemasonry in accordance with established landmarks.
- An acknowledgment that each Grand Lodge is sovereign
- Opens the lines of communication between the Grand Lodges for fraternal cooperation
- Allows members of Lodges in each Grand Lodge to visit Lodges in the other Grand Lodge to the same extent, and under the same conditions, as members of Lodges in any other Grand Lodge that is recognized by them. The Corpus Juris guidelines for visiting foreign jurisdictions would apply.
- In the case of American Freemasonry, it is also an acknowledgment that the two sovereign Grand Lodges (Prince Hall and Caucasian) can exist in the same territory as two separate entities with total control over their respective Craft.
Also explained are the guidelines for determining if a Grand Lodge is regular which both Mainstream and Prince Hall accept. A Grand Lodge must:
- be regular in its origin
- be truly independent and self-governing
- adhere to landmarks
- obligations must be taken on or in full view of the Volume of the Sacred Law
- it must display the three Great Lights of Freemasonry when it or its Lodges are open
- discussions of religion and politics in its Lodges must be prohibited, and:
- its membership must be male, and must have nothing to do with mixed or women’s Lodges
- its brethren must believe in a Supreme Being
The Book devotes a number of Chapters to recognition looking at the subject from many angles.
It devotes a chapter to Prince Hall writers from Martin Delaney, William Grimshaw, Lewis Hayden, Harry A. Williamson, Harry E. Davis, Joseph A. Walkes, Jr. and many others.
It devotes another chapter to the blackball, its effect on the admittance of Negroes into Mainstream Lodges and some modifications adopted in various jurisdictions to overcome the abuse.
The chapter on Objections to Recognition is most interesting. It starts with 20 FAQ about recognition. Then it moves into a detailed analysis of The American Doctrine, The Right of Exclusive Territorial Jurisdiction, which we will learn more about later. Then it lists all the statements about why Prince Hall cannot be recognized as written in the Grand Lodge minutes of various Mainstream Grand Lodges in chronological order. Just to mention a few:
1818/19 New York– The Grand Lodge of New York issues a decree of non-intercourse with Negro Lodges.
1867 Delaware – A portion of the Obligation in the degree of Master Mason stated that the initiation or visitation: …..”of any Negro, mulatto, or colored person of the United States is forbidden…….This prohibition shall be an obligation and taught in the third degree.”
1874 Texas – Acting Grand Master R.W. Bro. Bramlette devotes considerable space to the Negro, and believes he is by nature unfit material for Masonry, and adds, “No cultivation, and I might say, no manipulation by fanatics can raise him to the dignity of social and brotherly recognition in our Lodges.”
1909 Mississippi – From the Grand Master’s Address: “The Negro in our land is unfit to assume the responsibilities and obligations of Masonry. It is an open secret that virtue and morality, which are indispensable qualifications to membership, are foreign to the race. I felt it my duty as your Grand Master to cut loose from any who would dare open the door of Masonry to a people whose standing for virtue and morality is a mockery to civilization.”
1912 Illinois – A Past Master of a Lodge, together with a Past Senior Warden and another member, assisted as pallbearers at the funeral of a Negro Mason. The Past Master was expelled from the Lodge and the two others were suspended for one year.
1965 Texas – The Grand Master of Texas in his annual address lamented Negro Masons.
“It would appear that in general consensus in this Grand Jurisdiction during the last 128 years has been that members of the Negro race on the basis of anthropological, ethnological, cultural, mental, and social characteristics are not qualified for membership in our Fraternity.”
The chapter on Attempts and Repercussions for Recognition lists in chronological order of all the attempts of Negro Masonry to apply for Mainstream recognition, starting with Prince Hall petitioning Provincial Massachusetts Grand Master Joseph Warren in 1775.
The chapter on Influences on Recognition and Legitimacy explores the white side of recognition and the effect of predominately white writers and researchers on black recognition. Allen E. Roberts, Grand Master Howard L. Woods, Josiah Hayden Drummond, Albert Pike, Albert G. Mackey, William Upton and others are discussed, some having positive and some having negative effects. It also delves into the effect of The Philalethes Society, The Phylaxis Society, The Supreme Council A.S.S.R., COMPUSERVE Masonic forum and Evergreen Magazine of Iowa. Then it lists in chronological order every black/white visitation that actually occurred that the authors could find, illegal or otherwise.
In the chapter titled Rules Concerning Sovereignty we see as recognition actually started to get approved how various Mainstream jurisdictions grappled with the legalistics of recognition. It is here we learn more about the discussion of how they actually did it.
Once more we are back to the stumbling block of the The Right of Exclusive Territorial Jurisdiction.The authors tell us that there was three ways that Mainstream Grand Lodges dealt with this issue:
- Ignore it or do not try to deal with it. 14 Grand Lodges chose this route.
- Focus on the Doctrine of Exclusive Territorial Jurisdiction, not Grand Lodge Code. Here Grand Lodges accepted the interpretation that this Doctrine allows consenting Grand Lodges to coexist. 6 Grand Lodges chose this route.
- Amend Grand Lodge Code. 7 Grand Lodges chose this option.
Those that chose option #2 – Interpreting The American Doctrine as allowing coexistence- point to the Mainstream ruling in 1956 of The Commission on Information for Recognition of the Conference of Grand Masters of Masons in North America which established a standard addressing Territorial Sovereignty and printed it in their Commission book of Standards for Recognition. It reads as follows:
- Territorial Sovereignty
“That it is an independent, self governing organization, having Masonic authority within the governmental territory over which it assumes jurisdiction – whether country, province, state or other political subdivision: or else shares such exclusive territorial jurisdiction with another Grand Lodge by mutual consent and treaty.”
Another Chapter deals with State Status of Recognition by listing each state and going into detail into the reports issued regarding recognition whether they approved it or disapproved it. Some states show immense detail in their deliberations and proclamations while others are quite sparse. But when the reader is through with this chapter – and thinking about the material from previous chapters – one gets a good behind the scenes insight into all deliberations, discussions and debate that has taken place over this issue. Those states that have not yet recognized Prince Hall would do well to look into what their sister jurisdictions went through to move forward into the 21st century.
Some Masons think that Prince Hall recognition is just a recent phenomenon. They might be shocked to learn that Washington State recognized Prince Hall in 1898 and that is a whole story within itself. Massachusetts recognized Prince Hall in 1947. Both these recognitions were withdrawn after much pressure was applied from other Mainstream Grand Lodges.
The first four recognitions to remain permanent were:
- Connecticut – 1989
- Nebraska – February 1990
- Washington State – June 1990
- Wisconsin – June 1990
Remembering that Roundtree and Bessel previously stated that recognition probably would not come until the final Civil Rights Act of 1968, it is worth noting that both Connecticut and Wisconsin Mainstream & Prince Hall had been involved with cooperative action with each other for 20 years before finally deciding to recognize each other. That means their first interaction would have started in 1969 & 1970.
There is much more material about Mainstream proceedings in this book because Mainstream Masonry has kept detailed records and made that material publicly available. Roundtree and Bessel comment on that fact:
“Predominately white Grand Lodge proceedings are generally available in many Masonic libraries, research Lodges, Grand Lodges as well as at the Library of Congress. Prince Hall Grand Lodges have not systematically distributed their proceedings to other Grand Lodges, libraries, or research societies. Unfortunately, for posterity’s sake, there is no central repository for Prince Hall Grand Lodge proceedings. To research Prince Hall proceedings one would have to view a private collection or contact each Prince Hall Grand Lodge concerned and ask for cooperation. The most complete set, and probably only set, of Prince Hall Grand Lodge proceedings are in the Iowa Masonic Library (Cedar Rapids, Iowa).”
Roundtree & Bessel end up their saga on recognition with a Case Study and White Paper on the Washington D.C. Prince Hall recognition. Where both authors belong to respective D.C. Grand Lodges and both were involved intimately with the process of recognition this is a further behind the scenes glimpse into the inner workings of two Grand Lodges resolving differences.
The book concludes with a chapter on Demographics. Here you will find charts and graphs showing Prince Hall membership across the nation and African American population statistics. It is interesting to learn that 50% of all Prince Hall Masons are located in 6 states: Alabama, North Carolina, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia and Texas.
Out of the Shadows also contains over 100 pages of Appendixes. Here you can learn about every white and black clandestine Lodge in the USA and every court case Prince Hall has ever been involved with and much National Compact information as well as many other items of interest. In addition there is a 13-page glossary of terms and a 27 page Bibliography.
My take on this book is that it is a researchers dream. If The National Compact and Prince Hall recognition are subjects you want to bone up on, you could find no better source. What may be irritating to some would be the bias of the authors who are not timid about letting you know what they think along with a good display of facts.
Alas the Demographics were reprints of color presentations in black and white and all but useless. This book is chock full of information but its production is not what I call classy. It will never make it to the leather bound classics. However, for us blue collar types we could care less. It’s good stuff!