Black Shadow


June 2005
When J. Dan Bancroft decided to join the world’s oldest secret society, Freemasonry, forty years ago, he did so for many of the same reasons as the millions of men who had become Masons before him. Masonry is not only the world’s largest fraternity; it is also steeped in the sort of lore one would expect of a male-only organization that some say stretches back to biblical times. Who could resist becoming part of a group that is rumoured to possess a staggering secret that could change the world, a secret that has been the Holy Grail of explorers, writers, Nazis, clerics, and the paranoid for hundreds of years? How could Bancroft, an audit clerk from Toronto, pass up the chance to join a brotherhood supposedly linked to the Knights Templar Crusaders, Moses, Pythagoras, Euclid, Noah, or even Osiris, ancient Egypt’s god of the underworld? What man could possibly say no to a private club that counted Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, George Washington, Winston Churchill, Robert Burns, Charles Lindbergh, Ty Cobb, and Arnold Palmer as members? When have guys not yearned to hang out with their buddies in a “lodge,” learning secret handshakes and meeting the right people – all while wearing some nifty stonemason’s outfits?

It sounded good to Dan Bancroft. There was just one problem: Bancroft was black. His chances of swapping secret handshakes with his local lodge of Masons in Toronto (or anywhere else in the country) were, back in 1965, about the same as Bancroft being elected the city’s mayor, technically possible but improbable in the extreme. In fact, joining the same branch of the Masons that has counted six Canadian prime ministers and sixteen U.S. presidents among its members never even occurred to him.

Bancroft, instead, was hoping to become a new member of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge, otherwise known as Masonry’s black Brothers. While North American “mainstream” Masonry had J. Edgar Hoover, FDR, and Jesse Helms among their ranks, Prince Hall had civil-rights leader W.E.B. DuBois, Nat “King” Cole, Duke Ellington, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Alex Haley, and Jesse Jackson on their side of the ledger. Most Masonic historians now dismiss the stories of the fraternity’s biblical origins as nonsense, pegging the founding of their “Craft” by English noblemen and burghers somewhere around 1700, placing the genesis of Prince Hall within spitting distance of the birth of their “mainstream” Brothers’ formation.

As Bancroft learned when he joined Prince Hall, his black fraternity’s history dated back to 1775 and the American Revolution. Its founder, Prince Hall, a leading black anti-slavery campaigner and businessman, petitioned to join a Masonic lodge in Boston but was turned away, a rejection widely attributed to his race. Hall was also reportedly a soldier of the Revolution, but in a twist of irony, he and fourteen other African-American men had to turn to the enemy, to a British military lodge in Boston, in order to be accepted as the first black Masons in the New World.

In those days, Masonry stood for progressive ideals. Masons had been prominent instigators of both the French and American revolutions, and most members advocated social equality and tolerance. As a result, the British granted Hall and his group a charter in 1784.

Prince Hall has a long history in Canada, too. Its first Canadian grand lodge, formed in Ontario in 1856, is only one year younger than the country’s first white grand lodge. Regardless, until recently, white Masons didn’t even acknowledge the existence of the 300,000-member black Prince Hall fraternity – which currently has 500 members in a dozen lodges across Canada – much less recognize them as real Masons or allow them into their lodges. Despite the names among Canada’s Prince Hall membership – Lincoln Alexander, the former Ontario lieutenant-governor, Alvin Curling, Speaker of the Ontario legislature, and Prince Hall’s current grand master in Ontario and Quebec, Joseph Halstead, the outgoing economic-development czar for the city of Toronto – many white Masons still attack Prince Hall as “irregular” and “clandestine” – Masonic jargon for “fake.”

By 1991, Bancroft, at age sixty-three, had become the head of the city of Toronto’s audit department and the grand master of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Ontario and Quebec. Two years earlier, after a long campaign by progressive Masons, lodges in Connecticut voted to recognize Prince Hall and allow inter-visitation between white and black lodges. While most northern U.S. states quickly moved to offer Prince Hall the same recognition, all of Canada’s provincial white grand lodges were still holding out. It was during the summer of 1991 that Bancroft found himself on a flight to Montreal, on his way to meet with the white Masonic leaders of Quebec, whose lodges supported Prince Hall privately but didn’t officially recognize Bancroft or his members as legitimate Masons, to talk about a long-standing issue: getting Prince Hall officially recognized by the white Masons once and for all.

Recognition was important to Bancroft and Prince Hall because, without it, “mainstream” white lodges and Prince Hall were unable to associate with one another, which meant Prince Hall members were not permitted to participate in “normal” Masonic events, and vice-versa. During the flight to Montreal, Bancroft had a revelation. “I heard a voice,” he says. “It said to me, ‘How long must this continue?’ I looked around, and there was no one beside me. I thought, ‘What is this? It must be something from above.’ ”

Bancroft arrived at the beautiful old St. Georges lodge on rue Sherbrooke in Montreal’s Golden Square Mile district. He had lunch there with half a dozen top-level white Masons in a meeting room adorned with old portraits of past Masonic leaders. They discussed routine business, and then, before adjourning, the chair went around the table to ask for final comments. When it was Bancroft’s turn, he casually announced that instead of waiting for white Masons to recognize Prince Hall, he had decided to offer recognition to the white Masons first. “They thought I was a bit nuts,” he says, laughing. “Everybody was dumbfounded, really.”

The white grand master, Norman Auclair, was the first to speak. “This is a damn good idea,” he said. “We can take this and run with it.” The Prince Hall grand lodge unanimously approved the resolution at its annual meeting later that summer in London, Ontario, and Bancroft got a standing ovation.

Despite the support of Masons like the grand master of Quebec, nobody “ran with” Bancroft’s plan. It took another four years for Prince Hall to become recognized by every province in Canada except one. To this day, the country’s liberal, multicultural melting pot, Ontario, has the dubious distinction of being one of the last places – apart from the U.S. Deep South – that still refuses to accept Prince Hall members as Brothers. Fourteen years after Bancroft’s momentous meeting in Montreal, as Ontario’s “mainstream” Masons – whose membership remains predominantly white even though its lodges started to become more open to accepting black members in the 1970s – prepare to celebrate their grand lodge’s 150th anniversary this July, they are embroiled in their first-ever debate about whether to catch up with the rest of the world and accept the black brethren into the fold. It’s a debate that, for many Masons, goes to the heart of what the world’s largest fraternity is all about.

Years of waiting for Ontario to come around turned Bancroft’s wounded pride into a full-boil fury. “It gets you upside down,” he says. “We are real people. Brotherhood is brotherhood, whatever colour you are.”

Tensions between Prince Hall and Ontario finally came to a head on a rainy October day in 1997. Bancroft and three other Prince Hall officials arranged a meeting at a “mainstream” lodge in downtown London, Ontario. The four most senior white Masons of Ontario awaited them in a boardroom, and despite the business-as-usual appearance of the proceedings, along with the coffee and doughnuts, it was the first formal meeting between the two groups since they had each come to Ontario nearly 150 years before.

The meeting started off on a warm note, with an opening prayer and friendly introductions. Bruce Scott, the Prince Hall grand master at the time, chaired the meeting. The men sat around a table, and Bancroft was asked to give some background on Prince Hall and its recognition by the other provinces. The white Masons listened politely. “They did not say they disagreed” with Prince Hall’s bid for recognition, “nothing like that,” Bancroft says. “[But] they weren’t going to do anything about it. They wanted to have meetings and meetings and meetings.”

One of the white Masons said Prince Hall members should just join the white grand lodge. Bancroft and the others were taken aback. “Why should we join them?” he asks. “We are one year younger than they are, that’s all. We have a history.” The atmosphere got tense. Scott, a Detroit auto-industry executive who lives in Windsor, told the white Masons, “We don’t need to prove the authenticity of the organization.”
“It was very hot,” says Bancroft. “Bruce thought they were running him around too much. He was very, very upset.” Scott, for his part, has chosen not to talk about the exchange, saying only, “They said we should join them, not taking into account the history of Prince Hall. You wouldn’t forget about that history, to go running off.” The meeting lasted less than an hour and ended on a bitter note. It would be years before the two sides would meet again.

Ontario’s rejection of Prince Hall has always taken a subtle, distinctly Canadian tone. “It’s always couched in a very decent way that doesn’t completely humiliate you, but what they are saying is they don’t want you in the family,” says Charles Arthur Downs, a former Prince Hall grand master of Ontario and Quebec.

Prince Hall ran up against a similarly oblique rebuff in 1997, when most of Newfoundland’s Masonic lodges united into a single grand lodge, and Ontario’s white Masons helped them write their constitution. The Newfoundland lodges had been members of two British grand lodges that had accepted Prince Hall. That recognition was dropped in the new constitution.

Wallace McLeod, a world-renowned Masonic historian and professor emeritus of classics at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College, chalks much of this up to race. McLeod, who is writing the official history of Ontario’s grand lodge – to which over half of Canada’s 100,000 Masons belong – for its 150th birthday, to be celebrated in July at Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York Hotel, pulls no punches: “I can’t see any justification for non-recognition of Prince Hall except residual racial prejudice.”

McLeod isn’t the only white Mason to point the finger at prejudice. “Colour,” Nelson King, a prominent white Toronto Mason, says without hesitation when asked why Ontario rejects Prince Hall. “It’s race.” King is a former president of the Philalethes Society, a venerable Masonic research organization, and editor of its magazine. “When this thing first started [back in 1997], I would have thought Ontario would have been the first [to recognize Prince Hall]. You’ve got to correct a 222-year wrong. We’ve been damaged by this.”

Douglas Welsh, the grand historian of the white Grand Lodge of Nova Scotia, also blames racism (and, more recently, organizational inertia). “Ontario has been a conservative enclave for 200 years,” he says. “It’s very difficult to say we are promulgating the concept of taking good men and making them better if we don’t accept these men. Going forward, it’s going to have a big impact on us.”

There are, however, some interesting dissenters. Edwin Drew, a seventy-four-year-old retired Toronto insurance salesman and past grand master of Ontario, is a prominent opponent of recognizing Prince Hall. He’s had Masons in his family going back four generations, and both his sons are Brothers. He has a surprising explanation for his opposition: Recognizing Prince Hall is endorsing segregation. “I hope it doesn’t happen, because it’s a retrograde step,” he says. “[Prince Hall] came into being because of a segregated society. You can look around [white lodges in the U.S.] and see 1,500 faces and not see any non-white faces. The problem with Prince Hall is that we [in Ontario] are an integrated grand lodge,” which allows members of all colour. “Quite frankly, I think they are fine people, and I would welcome them into our grand lodge.”

When asked if recognizing Prince Hall is an endorsement of segregation, Charles Arthur Downs, the former Prince Hall grand master of Ontario and Quebec, is emphatic. “It’s not true. [Drew] will have to come up with a better one than that,” says Downs. “You have to think about how Prince Hall came about. It wasn’t the idea of Prince Hall to be segregated.”

When told that Drew would welcome any Prince Hall member into the “mainstream” grand lodge, Downs replied, “And we would welcome any of their members into our grand lodge. Drew speaks for a small rump group who have their own agenda.”

One of the key figures in the debate is the man in charge of Ontario’s white grand lodge, Donald Mumby. The sixty-five-year-old retired RCMP chief superintendent is rumoured to be progressive and open to the black Masons. When I got in touch with him at his home near Ottawa last July, he refused to answer questions on the topic. A few months later, though, in February, he was more talkative. His change of heart seems to have stemmed from a major breakthrough. He has been communicating with Prince Hall on a mutual-recognition pact, and he hopes to make an announcement at the grand lodge’s 150th anniversary meeting in July. “The time has come; the time is right,” he says.

Mumby denies that Ontario’s white Masons have resisted Prince Hall. “I wouldn’t call it resistance,” he says. “I guess I would call it skepticism about the benefits.” He denies racism was involved. “I like to think our grand lodge is colour-blind. We’re just always very cautious. It’s fine for other people in other provinces to recognize Prince Hall when they don’t have any [of their lodges] in their area.”

As for Mumby’s big proposal, no one’s breaking out the champagne just yet. There have been disappointments before. Last September, North Carolina was widely expected to recognize Prince Hall, but the resolution got only 53 percent of the votes, less than the two-thirds needed for approval. Edwin Drew is unsure that Mumby’s Prince Hall proposal will pass. Whether Mumby takes the vote to senior Masons or the membership at large, the outcome is still uncertain. “There is not really a consensus at the present time,” says Drew.

Still, Bancroft is “very, very happy” with Mumby’s plan. “It’s good to hear that,” he says. “We are moving forward. It took someone to be bold.”

Masons love to say they never change. But the recognition of Prince Hall isn’t the only issue rocking tradition. How Masons deal with their black brethren is part of a larger debate dividing Masons about what their group is all about, and its future. Masonry, like most churches, is having an identity crisis as ageing devotees pass away, young people lose interest, and membership numbers crash. In its heyday forty years ago, Masonry had close to 300,000 Canadian members and 4.1 million Americans. Today, it’s down to 100,000 in Canada and 1.6 million in the U.S. The average age has shot up from the forties to the high sixties and early seventies, so numbers are expected to continue sinking for years.

On another front, Masons are under siege in their two strongest bastions, the U.K. and U.S. In the mid-1990s, British Labour MPs demanded (unsuccessfully) that civil servants register their Masonic membership because of concerns they might give preferential treatment to fellow Brothers. Then, in 2002, the archbishop of Canterbury condemned Masonry as “incompatible” with Christianity because of its secrecy and “possibly Satanically inspired” beliefs. Across the sea, the Shriners, America’s highest-ranking Masons, came under fire in the late 1990s over revelations that just a quarter of their $8-billion charity endowment – the world’s biggest – went to charitable activities, particularly the network of Shriners hospitals. And American Masons are still reeling from a 1993 inquiry by the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention that denounced Masonry as “sacrilegious” because of its “pagan” and “occultic” rituals: The churches accuse Masonry of being a quasi-religion that prays to a composite Masonic deity, the Great Architect of the Universe. Masons deny they are a religion, but some Masonic writers say the fraternity is a kind of meta-religion that combines Christianity, Judaism, and beliefs of ancient pagans, Egyptians, and Greeks.

In a bid to find new members and fend off attacks from the church, Masons are hiring PR experts, talking to journalists, running ads on TV and highway billboards, and setting up info booths at plowing competitions and in subway stations. The 150th anniversary celebrations in Ontario will even include a “Mason Idol” contest. Osiris would be rolling in his grave, if only he weren’t undead.

One of the biggest changes has come from the Shriners’ organization. In 2000, the Shrine eased membership rules and became open to almost any confirmed Mason; some grand lodges will now usher up to 1,500 uninitiated men through thirty-two degrees of Masonry and into the Shrine in a single day for US$400 and the cost of a fez, a process that normally used to take a decade or two and cost thousands of dollars in fees.

But some Masons say the changes don’t solve Masonry’s deeper problems. “Masonry has lost its moral leadership,” says John Slifko, a twenty-five-year Mason who is working on a Ph.D. in cultural geography at UCLA and was once a Democratic Congressional staffer. “You cannot believe the racism in the South [among Masons]. It’s sickening. You’re not going to get the brightest and best of the American campuses to join this antiquated organization.”

Not everyone agrees. Douglas Collins, sixty, a retired Dallas police detective and a prominent Mason in Brownsville, Texas, has just finished a term as Worshipful Master of the Texas Lodge of Research. His state is one of the thirteen in the South that still don’t recognize Prince Hall, and Collins says it’s going to stay that way for a while. “This is one thing that a lot of you guys up in the Northeast or in Canada have to understand,” he says. “There is a distinct culture between the races. Now we’re all Americans, and everybody’s equal, but in many cases, let me just put it this way – we’re not as well liked by them as they are by us.”

When asked why his grand lodge doesn’t recognize Prince Hall, Collins stammers. “I’m just kind of uncomfortable answering that one because obviously I don’t want to say the wrong thing,” he says. “They’re using [it] as a racial thing to try to embarrass us into doing it. They’re free to do what they want, and if Texas does not agree with what they do, all we got to do is sever fraternal relations with them.” Collins later acknowledges that race is one reason many white Masons in the American South reject Prince Hall. “There’s a lot of the old South bias in ’em. Can’t deny that.”

John Slifko hopes to save Masonry by returning it to its radical roots. He is setting up the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Center for the Study of Civil Society and Freemasonry, an international team of like-minded progressive scholars. Slifko believes that ending Masonry’s legacy of racism is just the first step. Next, it should let in women. He says, “The issue of blacks and women in Freemasonry is a barometer.”

“Let me stop you short on that right now,” Douglas Collins replies, when asked about women in Masonry. “Freemasonry is a fra-ter-ni-ty – ‘frater’ meaning male brothers. Period. [Accepting women] will literally be over my dead body. Any mainstream grand lodge in the United States pulls that stunt [allowing women], they’re going to be dropped from fraternal relations by the rest of them. They’re going to be an outcast grand lodge.”

But if Masonry doesn’t catch up with the world, the world may soon catch up with it. The Brothers could one day have no choice but to let sisters into their family. In 1987, the Rotary Club, which has 1.2 million members worldwide, was forced to accept women in America when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a law that said clubs that operate in a business capacity can’t be men-only. The same thing could happen to Masonry, says Richard Fletcher of the Masonic Service Association. “I can tell you from a Masonic point of view it isn’t going to happen,” he says of allowing women. “I can’t tell you what the government laws will do. It could be a court decision.”

Back in Toronto, Dan Bancroft is flabbergasted at the idea of female Masons. “I have never thought of that, really,” he says. “This I wouldn’t touch.” He prefers to focus on the Prince Hall recognition vote this summer in Ontario. He hopes that this struggle, at least, may finally be over. “I don’t know why it takes so long,” he says. “I want to see this before it is my time to pass on.” As for women, that may be a battle for the next century.

Alex Roslin is a freelance journalist living in Montreal.