In the early 20th century, there was no such thing as a Black business district in the Southeast. Jim Crow laws authorizing the separation of races excluded Blacks from White-owned businesses across Birmingham. This forced Black 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 Renaissance-Revival style 7-story brick building in downtown Birmingham, Alabama was constructed by the Windham Brothers Construction Company. The Masonic Temple was built in 1922 for the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge, Free & Accepted Masons of Alabama.
The limestone temple was designed by one of the first accredited African-American architect firms, Robert Taylor and Louis Persley. Taylor, who studied at MIT with Booker T. Washington, 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 space on the ground floor with a soda fountain and drug store. There was also a pool hall in the basement. Professional offices as well as office space for the Masons were on the upper floors.
The entire construction cost of $658,000 was paid by contributions, therefore zero debt was accrued. The building relies on annual contributions from the Prince Hall Free Masons to pay for maintenance and upkeep. The Masonic Temple, 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 Masonic Temple building housed the state 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 inside the Masonic Temple.
Arthur Shores, who played a key role in many court cases and lawsuits regarding voting and education, had an office here. In addition, the Masonic Temple served as the exclusive social and cultural center for the African-American community of Birmingham 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, Duke Ellington and his band regularly performed to a packed house in the Masonic Temple. Count Basie, an international jazz musician, 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 claims to still use the Masonic Temple for meetings however the building has not held a concert since the early 2000s. Many of the windows are boarded up or broken and no tenants have been in the building in decades.
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 Masonic Temple. Today, the building sits chained up and empty, serving as a reminder of the past.