In the early 20th century, there was no such thing as an African-American business district in the Southeast. Jim Crow laws authorizing the separation of races excluded Blacks from White-owned businesses across Birmingham. This forced African-American businesses to move in and around the Fourth Avenue district. Over the years, the Fourth Avenue business district became a booming hub, complete with packed theaters and a vibrant city life with restaurants and jazz clubs.
The Masonic Temple was built in 1922 for the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge, Free & Accepted Masons of Alabama. The seven-story Renaissance-Revival style building in downtown Birmingham was constructed by the Windham Brothers Construction Company. The Colored Masonic Temple was designed by one of the first accredited African-American architect firms, Robert Taylor and Louis Persley. Taylor studied at MIT with Booker T. Washington, and later designed many of the buildings at Tuskegee University and Selma University.
Although the Masonic Temple was built for the Masons, the building was made up of retail tenants on the ground floor including a drug store and hair salon. There was also a pool hall in the basement.
The entire construction cost of $658,000 was paid by contributions, therefore zero debt was accrued by the Masons. The Masonic Temple relies on annual contributions from the Prince Hall Free Masons to pay for maintenance and upkeep. The building, at the time of completion, was the largest, most state of the art facility built and paid for by Negroes in the entire world.
The Colored Masonic Temple housed the Alabama headquarters for the Prince Hall Masons and the Order of the Eastern Star. Dozens of offices of notable African-American professionals, organizations, and businesses were located inside.
Arthur Shores, who played a key role in many court cases and lawsuits regarding voting and education, had an office on one of the upper floors. In addition, the Masonic Temple served as the exclusive social and cultural center for Birmingham’s African-American community during segregation.
The Grand Hall auditorium was a formal meeting place for social events and concerts. The ground floor had three rooms that housed the Booker T. Washington public library. For almost 30 years, this branch of the library served the African American community. In its hey day, jazz musician Duke Ellington and his band regularly performed to a packed house in the Masonic Temple. Count Basie, an international jazz musician, also played annually in the auditorium.
The State of Alabama Department of Archives credits this Colored Masonic Temple with creating the second major wave of African-American businesses in the city of Birmingham.
Several Civil Rights advocacy groups had offices in the Masonic Temple including the Southern Negro Youth Congress, the NAACP, the Right to Vote club, and the Jefferson County Negro Democratic League.
On May 26, 1956, the office doors of the NAACP inside the Masonic Temple were padlocked by order of Montgomery circuit Judge Walter Jones, who banned the organization from operating in Alabama. After a long series of court battles the ban was finally lifted in 1964.
The Prince Hall Grand Lodge still owns the Colored Masonic Temple, but the Grand Hall hasn’t been used for meetings since the early 2000s. Sadly, the building has fallen into a state of disrepair over the past decade. Several windows remain boarded up, but the future seems bright for the blighted building. In January 2009, a meeting was held in the Grand Hall by the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation to develop an economically viable use for the Colored Masonic Temple. After serving the Birmingham community for 81 years, the building was shuttered in 2011.