Letting in a black man
Atlanta Freemason lodge fights for equality
The Sunday Paper | Jul 12, 2009
By Chuck Stanley
An Atlanta Masonic lodge’s struggle to keep its charter in the face of racially charged complaints from fellow Georgia Freemasons has erupted into a public court battle, high-level resignations, and efforts from Masons across the country to show that such prejudices run counter to the fraternity’s principles of equality and brotherhood.
Ever since Victor Marshall’s first dinner with the Masons of Atlanta’s Gate City Lodge No. 2 during the summer of 2007, his experience with the centuries-old fraternity has been almost everything he hoped it might be. His interest in the “craft,” as it is called by Masons, began in his teens and continued to grow as the years passed. He was drawn by the idea of an egalitarian brotherhood free from barriers of class or social status. After researching various Atlanta area lodges, Marshall made up his mind to attend one of the open dinners held by Gate City Lodge No. 2 before each of their meetings at the Atlanta Masonic Center on Peachtree Street.
Marshall spent the next year getting acquainted with the Masons of Gate City Lodge, thus satisfying the prescribed amount of time a Master Mason must know a prospective member before vouching for his candidacy to join. By early 2009, Marshall had passed through the stages of Apprentice and Fellow Craft to be recognized as a Master Mason. The community service, the brotherhood and the discourse on history and philosophy he has participated in since joining have made him happy with his decision.
“I’ve gotten to know a lot of good brothers. I’ve learned a lot,” he says. “It’s exactly what I wanted.”
In February of this year, Marshall, along with Masons from across the state, attended the 275th anniversary of Solomon’s Lodge No. 1. The Savannah lodge traces its origins to Gen. James Oglethorpe, and claims to be the oldest continuously active lodge in the Western Hemisphere. Marshall says he was greeted enthusiastically by his fellow Masons. Shortly after his appearance at Solomon’s Lodge, though, word began to circulate that the Masons of Gate City counted a black man amongst their ranks.
Grand Master James Jennings, who heads the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons in Georgia, sent out a memo dated Feb. 25, 2009, in an apparent attempt to tamp down commentary about Marshall. “To answer any question about Gate City Lodge No. 2 raising a black man in their lodge,” he wrote, “ … Since all requirements in the Masonic Code were met, and no part of our obligation has been violated, he is a regular Mason and should be received as such.”
Nonetheless, Masonic charges meant to revoke Gate City’s charter and expel its leader, Michael Bjelajac, were soon filed by Starling “Sonny” Hicks and Douglass Etheridge, leaders of Georgia’s Philogia Lodge in Conyers and Metro Daylight Lodge in Chamblee, respectively. They accused Bjelajac of raising “a nonwhite man” to the level of Master Mason. Bjelajac’s occupation as a police officer prohibits him from commenting publicly on legal matters, but his attorney and fellow Gate City Lodge member, David Llywellen, says the charges filed by Hicks and Etheridge have no basis in Masonic code.
“It has certainly never been part of our law that you have to be a particular race to be a Mason, and it is un-Masonic to contend otherwise,” Llywellen says. “These charges are like saying, ‘I charge you with the crime of drinking water.’”
In Georgia, Llywellen says Masons of Arab, Persian, South Asian, East Asian and Latin heritage are all represented. Marshall, says Llywellen, is at least the second black man within Gate City Lodge to become a Master Mason, and certainly not the first black Mason in Georgia.
The apparent lack of foundation for the charges filed against Gate City, as well as a fear of losing their charter, led Bjelajac and Gate City to file a lawsuit in DeKalb County to stop the Grand Lodge of Georgia from taking internal action against the lodge and its leader. Llywellen contends that the Grand Lodge had an obligation to dismiss the charges leveled by Hicks and Etheridge as soon as they were filed. Instead, says Llywellen, the Grand Lodge, including a South Georgia attorney named Franklin Aspinwall, who was to chair the Masonic charges and is named in the suit, violated their contractual obligation to Gate City members by putting their charter in jeopardy based on “spurious” charges. Although the internal charges made by Hicks and Etheridge have been withdrawn, the Gate City Masons want some assurance they will not be subject to similar charges in the future before they withdraw their suit.
“We want an order in place to protect us from anyone trying to continue to attack us for doing what is right,” says Llywellen.
The controversy surrounding Gate City Lodge has resulted in two resignations at the state level. David Herman, a member of Gate City Lodge, resigned from his post as district deputy to the Grand Master. He declined to comment on his resignation for The Sunday Paper but, in a post to Gate City’s Web site dated June 20, Herman wrote of his resignation from the state level: “As a District Deputy, I must be the Grand Master’s representative; nothing more and nothing less. Yet, as a Freemason, I could not sit on the sideline and be a passive witness to these events. I resigned so that I might stand with my [Gate City] Brethren.”
Further elaborating on his decision, Herman wrote in this month’s edition of Work and Lectures, a DeKalb County Masonic newsletter: “I found myself unable to remain silent on the sidelines in the face of the charges read against our Worshipful Master, for the actions that we had taken as a lodge. My resignation should not be interpreted as a criticism of the Grand Master or the Grand Lodge.”
Gate City fell under the jurisdiction of District Deputy John Holt, an 82-year-old retired machinist and salesman, when Victor Marshall became a Master Mason. Grand Master James Jennings asked Holt to tender his resignation after the controversy broke. Holt maintains that the Grand Master never expressed dissatisfaction over the induction of a black man into Gate City. However, when complaints and, later, charges against Gate City made their way to the Grand Lodge, he says, Jennings felt “blindsided.”
“I failed to inform the Grand Master of what was going on in that [Gate City] lodge,” says Holt, who says he harbors no ill will over the situation. “That’s my duty and I didn’t do it. So for that reason, I had to resign.”
In retrospect, Holt says, Marshall’s membership in the lodge was “out of the ordinary” (he was not aware of any other black Masons in the district) and therefore should have been relayed to the Grand Master. At the time, though, it never occurred to him to report it.
“It’s just one of those things,” he says, sympathizing with Jennings’ request that he resign. “It’s my job to report on anything out of the ordinary.”
Gate City’s Llywellen says he was contacted by representatives from the Grand Lodge in January, who inquired about Marshall’s membership and whether he was indeed black.
As the drama between Gate City and the Grand Lodge plays out, it is likely to have effects beyond a shake-up of Georgia’s Masonic officers. South Dakota’s Mt. Rushmore Lodge No. 220 has petitioned the Grand Lodge of South Dakota to “issue a formal, public statement that it will not accept racial or religious intolerance, prejudice, or bigotry in any of its subordinate lodges.”
Chris Hodapp, who authored “Freemasons for Dummies” and also runs the book’s companion blog, says electronically connected Masons across the country are closely following the Gate City story.
“It’s humiliating for the rest of the world of Freemasonry,” he says. “I contacted my Grand Master and said, ‘If it turns out that these charges go through and if something happens to Gate City Lodge or its members because of it, I would strongly recommend considering withdrawing recognition of Georgia.’”
Hodapp describes withdrawing recognition as a “nuclear option” that would pit Grand Lodges against each other. Such a move, he says, is only justifiable if a lodge acts in clear contradiction of Masonic principals.
The overflow of Georgia Masonry’s internal squabbles into the public eye, says Hodapp, is “very, very unusual” for the group, which generally prefers to settle its disagreements in-house. The headlines, though, may force Freemasons to address issues of race that have been ignored by Grand Lodges in the past. In a fraternity that clings to centuries-old traditions, says Hodapp, there are some individuals and lodges that may continue to hold on to traditions that existed when the whole of American society was divided by color barriers. Because of the relative autonomy of individual lodges, he adds, it is possible that some have continued an unspoken whites-only policy unbeknownst to members of their respective Grand Lodges. While emphasizing that these individuals and lodges constitute a very small minority in American Freemasonry, Hodapp notes that the problem is not limited to Old Dixie states. While serving as Worshipful Master of his Indiana lodge, Hodapp remembers the backlash that followed the raising of two black men into the lodge.
“I was accused of not only destroying the lodge, but of destroying Freemasonry,” he says. “[Those critics] were a tiny minority.”
Hodapp believes the silence of Georgia Grand Master James Jennings since Gate City filed its suit is evidence that his hands may be tied as far as creating a real solution to the dispute. Gate City wants a guarantee that it will not be the subject of continued charges and attempts to revoke its charter. However, any such guarantee could mean that Gate City is no longer subject to the bylaws of the Grand Lodge. Furthermore, any guarantee made by Jennings is subject to repeal when the Grand Lodge convenes at the end of his term.
“At the annual communication,” says Hodapp, “they review everything [the Grand Master] has done in the course of the year. And they are allowed to say, ‘You blew that, you did that wrong, we’re eradicating your decision.’”
Despite the stickiness of the situation, Hodapp feels there are things the Grand Master could do to resolve deeper problems surrounding the Gate City situation. A statement denouncing racism in Georgia Freemasonry would help erase any confusion over the role of race in Georgia Masonry, says Hodapp. The Grand Lodge, he says, could also move to recognize Georgia’s Prince Hall Freemasons. The predominantly African-American group sprang up as a response to the segregation inherent to nearly all social groups in the United States before the mid-20th century, and is recognized by most Grand Lodges in the U.S. Recognition of Prince Hall Masons by Georgia’s Grand Lodge would make Prince Hall Masons welcome at meetings of Masonic Lodges across Georgia and blur the implied color line that comes from having two separate grand lodges in the state.
James N. Cline, the Roswell attorney representing the Grand Lodge, has stated that representatives from Gate City and the Grand Lodge have been in contact in the hopes of keeping the case out of court. He was unable to comment on any concessions the Grand Lodge might be willing to make, as the two sides are still struggling to reach an agreement.
“We’re meeting and trying to get this problem resolved internally, if we can,” says Cline. “All of this is still up in the air.”
Meanwhile, Victor Marshall, the mild-mannered Army Reservist whose interest in brotherhood, charity and enlightenment unwittingly placed him at the center of a scandal being followed by Masons across the country, remains no less glad to be a Mason. The supportive e-mails he has received from around the country and the solidarity he has witnessed within Gate City Lodge have him convinced that Freemasonry, as a whole, is everything he hoped it would be when he first broke bread with his Gate City brethren nearly two years ago.
“Freemasonry itself is kind of like a life-changing event. There are principals that we’re now supposed to live by, attempt to live by, so it’s a 24-hour ordeal and I welcome it,” Marshall says. “I’m proud to be a Freemason.” SP