14 January 2017


Cécile Révauger. Black Freemasonry: From Prince Hall to the Giants of Jazz. Inner Traditions, 2016

This is a translation of a French work, the original of which was entitled Blacks and Freemasons: How Racial Segregation was Established Among the American Brothers. Presumably to make it more palatable to an American audience, Inner Traditions have chosen to highlight the cosier jazz angle, which not only ducks the book’s less comfortable central theme but is also, as I’ll come to, a bit of a swizz.
Cécile Révauger has the right credentials for this study, being both a professor of history at Bordeaux University and a Freemason of France’s Grand Orient, which untypically, and in keeping with the French Republic’s egalitarian and secular values (which Révauger wears proudly - at times even smugly - on her sleeve), is open to women and atheists.

Her subject is the Freemasonry practised within the USA’s black community - named ‘Prince Hall Freemasonry’ after its founder - which operates in uneasy parallel with that of the predominantly white Establishment. (Throughout Révauger refers to the latter as ‘white Freemasonry’ - not a label it would give itself but one that reflects the reality of the situation, even today.) Although sharing the same structure, constitutions and rituals, the two are entirely autonomous and serve separate communities.

It is, as Révauger points out at the start, an area neglected by Masonic historians. Research is made difficult not only by the many gaps in the historical sources but also the Prince Hall lodges’ reluctance to allow outsiders, Révauger included, access to their archives. Her research is therefore based chiefly on the lodges’ own publications and interviews with their officials and historians. Because of these limitations, she hasn’t attempted a chronological history but, apart from the early chapters on Prince Hall Freemasonry’s origins, has organised her study thematically. However, the lack of information also limits a proper evaluation of some of those themes, and there are several places where I felt that Révauger has drawn over-firm (and often overoptimistic) conclusions from incomplete or ambiguous evidence.

Révauger gives little attention to Freemasonry’s esoteric side as ‘black Freemasonry overall seems to be more militant than esoteric in its essence.’ Consequently, her book is more of a social history, focussing on Freemasonry’s place in the Afro-American story. (She eschews the term ‘Afro-American’ as it ‘conflicts with the French approach, which places individuals on an equal plane as citizens of one nation and considers any kind of classification based on ethnicity as discriminatory.’ She prefers ‘black Americans’, although I’m not sure how identifying a group by skin colour rather than geographical origin is any less of an ethnic classification.)

The book’s first part outlines black Freemasonry’s origins (as far as they can be pieced together), beginning with the figure – rendered enigmatic by the scant biographical material – of Prince Hall himself. He was (most likely) a freed slave born (maybe) in Barbados in 1748 (or 1735), who settled in Boston, where in 1775 (-ish) he was initiated into Freemasonry, (probably) a military lodge operating under the Grand Lodge of Ireland. Hall then wanted to form a lodge for black Bostonians, which required the sanction of a grand lodge; rebuffed by Massachusetts’ Masonic authorities, he appealed to the Grand Lodge of England, which granted a charter to Hall’s ‘African Lodge’ in 1784. Around the turn of the nineteenth century – exactly when and why is unclear – this rebranded itself the Prince Hall Grand Lodge, assuming the authority to issue charters in its own right, beginning Freemasonry’s expansion within America’s black community.

Révauger explores that community’s motives for wanting to take up Freemasonry. Many have seen it as ‘Uncle Tom-ism’, a fawning emulation of white ways, but Révauger prefers to explain the appeal by two elements that in her view give Freemasonry a special meaning for Afro-Americans. First, both cultures place an emphasis on oral over written tradition. More importantly, in the post-slavery era the Masonic emphasis on the value of work ‘allowed blacks to recover the dignity needed to realize their desire to become part of American society.’ Maybe, but I didn’t find Révauger’s argument particularly persuasive, rather one of several examples of her choosing the most positive interpretation from several, equally plausible, possibilities.

One reason I wasn’t convinced is Révauger’s repeated observation that Prince Hall Freemasonry’s main appeal has always been to middle class Afro-Americans, as a vehicle for elevating their status within the community. As she puts it, ‘Black Freemasonry, which is strongly elitist, maintains a bourgeois prerogative’ - although on the positive side it ‘encourages their involvement in the society of their time and thereby promotes their social ascent.’

The second part, ‘A Militant Tradition’, examines that involvement, particularly in movements to improve the lot of Afro-Americans. However, this raises a perennial problem: when Freemasons involve themselves in social or political affairs, is it because they are Masons – either inspired by Freemasonry’s ideals or as part of a specific Masonic programme – or do they just happen to be Masons? Although Révauger shows that there were certainly militant black Masons, she doesn’t establish that this was part a tradition of militancy.

For example, she makes much of the Masonic affiliation of two pioneers of education for young black Americans, Booker T. Washington (1856-1913) and W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), who was also the founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. However, she notes that both were invited to join - ‘on sight’ in Masonic jargon – because of their work, perhaps a sign of Freemasonry’s approval of their endeavours but equally explicable by a desire to sign up prominent members of the community. Either way, neither man was originally inspired by their Freemasonry.

The same goes for black Freemasonry’s part in the anti-slavery and civil rights movements. While many black Masons, including Prince Hall himself, were active in the abolitionist movement, and individual lodges served as stations on the ‘Underground Railway’ for escaped slaves, there doesn’t appear to have been any central co-ordination or policy: some (like Hall) urged emancipation through legal channels, while others encouraged revolt. Prince Hall Freemasonry’s active involvement in the civil rights struggle of the twentieth century is easier to show, as it established official ties with the NAACP, becoming its second largest donor. However, Révauger doesn’t demonstrate that it was a driving force in either movement.

The third part, which deals with Prince Hall Freemasonry’s role in the Afro-American community, for example in charitable works, includes the chapter ‘Jazzmen and Black Artists’. This fails abjectly to deliver on the expectations raised not only by the book’s subtitle but also the jacket blurb’s promises of revelations about ‘the deep connections between jazz and Freemasonry’ and ‘how many of the most influential jazz musicians of the 20th century were also Masons, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Eubie Blake, Cab Calloway, and Paul Robeson.’ In fact, in Armstrong’s case, Révauger concludes that he almost certainly wasn’t a Mason.

Although recommending a study by Raphaël Imbert (only available in French) on jazz’s ‘spiritual dimension’, including the significance of Masonic ideals and symbolism, typically Révauger avoids this aspect, concentrating instead on the role of black entertainers in social activism. Just two, in fact (neither jazzmen): Nat King Cole, a not particularly vocal member of the NAACP, and the more overtly political Paul Robeson, who was made a Mason ‘on sight’ after he’d established his reputation for activism – and become famous.

The bulk of the chapter consists of potted biographies of black musicians and singers (not just from the jazz world – it includes an opera singer and several bluesmen) who are known to have been Masons (and including Armstrong, despite Révauger’s reservations), which say nothing about the relevance, if any, of their membership to their artistry. As Révauger admits, ‘To the extent that musicians released no public statements about their Masonic membership, and by reason that the Prince Hall Grand Lodges have never made their archives available to researchers in any systematic fashion, it is quite difficult to precisely evaluate the importance of Freemasonry in these men’s lives.’ She isn’t to blame for the publisher choosing to hang the book on the jazz connection, but even so it barely merits the little space she has given it.

There’s a chapter on women and Prince Hall Freemasonry. There are groups, such as the Eastern Star and the Heroines of Jericho, open to the wives and female relatives of Masons, but – as in Freemasonry generally (excepting Révauger’s own obedience) – they are recognised ‘only as benevolent companions responsible for implementing charitable activities on behalf of their Masonic husbands and relatives.’ However, she finds that these groups are treated slightly less peripherally than in white Freemasonry.

The relationship between black and white Freemasonry – as the original title indicates, the real point of the book - is, unsurprisingly, a recurring theme, and is explored most fully in the last and longest part, ‘The Parted Brothers’.

Racism has tainted American Masonic history as it has the nation’s history in general. As Révauger observes, ‘white Freemasons had no fear of displaying racist positions that defied the most elementary principles of Masonic universalism,’ and from the outset ‘displayed unrelenting scorn for the black lodges.’ However, they didn’t overtly base their hostility on race but rather on technical challenges. Foremost among them was the stipulation that a Mason must be ‘free-born’ which, interpreted literally, excluded even emancipated slaves after the Civil War. As new generations made that objection untenable, mainstream Freemasonry switched to other lines of attack, for example questioning the legitimacy of Hall’s original charter. However, Révauger shows that these were merely pretexts, as similar obstacles were easily overcome in the case of white lodges.

Astoundingly, it took until 1989 for a white Grand Lodge, that of Connecticut, to give official recognition to the state’s Prince Hall Grand Lodge. Since then, others have followed, and today the grand lodges in all but nine states recognise their black counterparts as legitimate, if distinct and autonomous – those nine, tellingly, all in southern states that practised slavery.

Despite this rapprochement, and some extremely rare exceptions of black men being initiated into white lodges and vice versa, US Freemasonry remains effectively segregated. This isn’t solely down to white prejudice: Prince Hall Freemasonry has, for understandable reasons, adopted a ‘separatist reaction’, asserting its autonomy and taking pride in its place in Afro-American culture, keeping itself almost exclusively black, although it does seem to have been a little more open than white Freemasonry to other ethnic minorities: Révauger cites New York lodges that included Jewish, Hispanic and Italian members. (The Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Texas does now permit white men to join – provided they have black wives.)

At times Révauger’s enthusiasm for her case seems to get the better of her historian’s objectivity. A notable example is in a section entitled ‘The Living Legends of White Freemasonry’, in which she seeks to show that its racism went beyond simple institutional prejudice and that it at least tacitly condoned the ugliest and most extreme manifestations of white supremacism, although she cites only two examples in support of her argument (both nineteenth century, so hardly living!).

First, she slams white Freemasonry for admitting Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, although she acknowledges that he wasn’t a particularly active or high-ranking Mason (so not quite one of its legends). Her second example, though, truly is one of the monumental figures of US Freemasonry: Albert Pike (1809-91), composer of its ‘bible’, Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite.

Révauger asserts that, simultaneously with being that Rite’s Sovereign Grand Commander, Pike served as the KKK’s chief justice. However, her source for this, and a horribly racist quote attributed to Pike, is a single, unreferenced footnote in a 1989 Masonic quiz book by Prince Hall historian Joseph Walkes. She concludes, rather perversely, that ‘Walke’s assertion about Pike’s dual membership remains to be verified, but nothing allows us to dismiss it as erroneous,’ and puts the ‘silence’ about Pike’s KKK connections in biographies and Masonic encyclopaedias down to a cover-up. Yet she goes on to acknowledge that Pike encouraged the expansion of Prince Hall Freemasonry, albeit as a separate system, for example assisting his (in her words) ‘black friend’ Thornton A. Jackson in founding its Supreme Council in Washington, D.C. Now, I don’t know whether or not Pike held racist views and, if so, to what degree, but more evidence than this is needed before such a damning pronouncement.

Such criticisms aside, this is probably as good an overview of Prince Hall Freemasonry as can be written at the present time, given the dearth of accessible sources that prevents a full historical narrative and a proper evaluation of its significance.

Although this edition is packaged and promoted for a general audience, it was written for a fairly academic readership, with a scholarly tone – heavily referenced, and with appendices reproducing key historical documents and giving statistics on Prince Hall Freemasonry today - and assuming some background knowledge of Freemasonry’s history and organisation, particularly the various competing obediences and rites, against which the Prince Hall story is set.

Cécile Révauger’s conclusion is that, despite its bourgeois pretensions, Prince Hall Freemasonry has ultimately been a good thing for black Americans: ‘By giving members self-confidence and inspiring them to take action, the lodge encouraged its members to seek advancement, both for themselves and for American blacks in general.’ She succeeds in showing that this long-ignored strand of Freemasonry’s story is both fascinating and important. Her book also offers an unusual perspective on the story of America’s black community and the history of race relations in the USA. It’s not one for jazz aficionados, though. – Clive Prince

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