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50 Years/50 Collections Defenders of Social Justice: The Prince Hall Masons of Louisiana

October 31, 2016

 

The records of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge, Free and Accepted Masons of Louisiana has become one of the Center’s most popular collections despite it being a relatively new holding. The records were donated in 2008 by the Prince Hall Masons lodge in Baton Rouge, and the collection was so large that it took two years for archivists to arrange, describe, and organize it. The records serve as a rich source of primary documentation about the history of African American freemasonry in Louisiana and throughout the United States, the period of post-Civil War Reconstruction (1865-1877), the long civil rights movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (1878-1954) and the modern civil rights movement (1955-1968). The collection also features late 19th and early 20th century photographs of African Americans. The Prince Hall Masons of Louisiana can trace their historical roots to antebellum New Orleans and St. James A.M.E. Church, the first church of African Methodism established in the Deep South.

 

In the 1840s, Charles Doughty, James B. Berry, James Hunter, John Parsons, and Jacob Norager, already Prince Hall Freemasons and members of the St. Paul Methodist Episcopal Church, organized the St. James A.M.E. Church in New Orleans. Reverend Thomas Stringer, a Prince Hall Mason and a traveling elder for the Indiana District of the A.M.E. Church, arrived in New Orleans to serve as the pastor of the church. In 1849, members of St. James A.M.E. Church petitioned Reverend Stringer to organize a Masonic lodge. Stringer complied with the request and issued a dispensation to form a lodge. A few months later, the Richmond Lodge No. 4 in New Orleans was established, first under the jurisdiction of Pennsylvania and then later under Ohio. By 1863, the New Orleans Masons established an additional two lodges (Stringer No. 11 and Parsons No. 18), enabling the trio to form a Grand Lodge. This Grand Lodge of Louisiana, originally named Eureka as to differentiate itself from white lodges, was established January 5, 1863, at the hall of Richmond Lodge, No. 4. The first Grand Master was John Parsons, a leading African American political figure in New Orleans. In 1944, the act of incorporation for the Eureka Grand Lodge was amended and the organization was renamed—the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge, Free and Accepted Masons of Louisiana.

 

The Prince Hall Masons were defenders of social justice, founding and supporting a host of organizations in their quest to break down the barriers of American society. Among those organizations that received support from the Prince Hall Masons of Louisiana included the Louisiana Education Association, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the National Urban League.  With their focus on youth and education, the Prince Hall Masons in Louisiana put their efforts towards creating a haven, Camp Chicota, for Louisiana’s underprivileged youth; offered financial backing to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to battle segregationists in court; and were the trailblazers in integrating Louisiana’s transportation system.

 

An example of the Prince Hall Masons’ work in desegregation of transportation can be seen in the correspondence between Grand Master, John G. Lewis, Jr. and Julius A. Thomas, Director of the Department of Industrial Relations of the National Urban League. The letter describes events three days into the Baton Rouge boycott in June 1953. This would place the demonstration two years before the more well-known bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that activist Martin Luther King, Jr. led. The African American citizens of Baton Rouge, Louisiana united to fight segregated seating on their city buses. The Baton Rouge boycott, the first of the Civil Rights Movement, inspired the bus boycott in Montgomery. Despite its influence on Black citizens around the South, the eight days of the Baton Rouge bus boycott has been largely forgotten.

 

Additionally, the Grand Lodge provided members of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund traveling to Louisiana with places to stay and meet. The Lodge organized voter registration drives and assisted in funding the legal actions of the NAACP. In particular, the Grand Lodge generously helped to finance the NAACP's battle with segregationists in the 1954 Supreme Court fight Brown v. Board of Education. The Masonic support given to the Baton Rouge bus boycott and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund are just two examples of the social justice initiatives that the Prince Hall Masons of Louisiana participated in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For a more detailed description of materials within the Prince Hall Mason records please consult the finding aid for the collection which is located here.
 

 

 

 

Images from the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge, Free and Accepted Masons of Louisiana records. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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