There were roughly ten African-American lodges already in existence by 1870, when the “Colored Grand Lodge in Alabama” was organized in Mobile under the guidance of the Grand Lodge of Ohio (due to the absence of local white sponsorship). Thereafter Freemasonry in Alabama thrived, with lodges springing up not only in places like Mobile, Montgomery, Selma, Huntsville, and upstart industrial Birmingham, but also in rural communities scattered throughout the state. All of the lodges would eventually come under the umbrella national organization named for Prince Hall, the first Worshipful Master of America’s first black lodge, established in Boston in 1784. After 1900, Birmingham surged forward to become Alabama’s largest city. The Masons were determined to build a state headquarters in downtown, a notable flagship building that would also be a commercial space for black businesses and professionals. The headquarters would also house a large public meeting space in a state where most such venues were unavailable to blacks. In the early 20th century, there was no such thing as a black business district in the South. 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 Business District. Over the years, the area became a booming hub, complete with packed theaters and a vibrant city life with restaurants and jazz clubs.
Grand Master Walter T. Woods spearheaded the project and planning for new building began in 1913. However, construction would be on hold for several years more as funds were slowly raised from Masons throughout the state. Two members of the Tuskegee Institute architectural faculty, Robert Robinson Taylor and Louis H Persley, were engaged to develop drawings and specifications. Taylor, a native of North Carolina and the son of a carpenter, was the first black student to attend MIT. Under his eye, in collaboration with Institute founder Booker T. Washington, the Tuskegee campus had taken shape over the previous two decades. The much younger Persley was from Georgia, a 1914 graduate of Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh who had returned South to join Washington and Taylor at Tuskegee.
The cornerstone for the Birmingham Masonic Temple, officially named the “Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Alabama,” was laid with appropriate ritual in 1922. A steel-skeleton structure seven stories in height, the form of the building was conceived by its designers as essentially a large, quadrilinear commercial edifice. Its larger purpose is symbolically suggested by the thin neoclassical applique that wraps around its two street fronts. Yet the effect is achieved somewhat awkwardly, as pilasters, pedestals, and intervening entablatures stretch to accomodate the functional demands of a many-windowed, multi-storied structure that was to be at once institutional, ceremonial, and commercial. The limestone-faced ground floor of the building is treated as a classical podium that projects slightly at the main entrance to carry four engaged Corinthian columns. Rising through four of the seven stories to an abbreviated pediment flattened against buff-colored brick facade of the building, the columns announce the main entrance. Inscribed in the tympanum of the pediment is the name by which the building was known in the beginning, the “Colored Masonic Temple.”
Built by Windham Brothers, a Birmingham-based construction company, the Temple was completed, debt-free, in 1924 at a total cost of $658,000. Besides housing the state headquarters for Prince Hall Masons, the building accommodated the offices of other black fraternal groups including Freemasonry’s counterpart for women, the Order of the Eastern Star. Physicians, lawyers, dentists, and insurance agents leased space elsewhere in the building. Three ground floor rooms were occupied by the Booker T. Washing Library, the first lending library open to black citizens of Birmingham. Adjacent was a popular drugstore and “soda fountain,” and in the basement was a billiard hall. Besides being the setting for Masonic rites, the 2,000-seat “grand auditorium” occupying the second and third floors hosted concerts – Duke Ellington and Count Basie were regulars – as well as dances, mass meetings, and other special events. In time, the building would figure in the civil rights struggle as it sheltered the offices of the NAACP, the Southern Negro Youth Congress, the Right to Vote Club, and the Jefferson County Negro Democratic Youth League. Activist civil rights attorney Arthur Shores also had his offices in the Temple Building. At the time of its completion, the building was the largest, most state of the art facility built and paid for by Negroes in the entire world.
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. In recent decades, with the decline of Freemasonry, a building that once figured prominently in a vibrant black urban life has faced a sort of functional obsolescence. After serving the Birmingham community for more than eighty years, the building was shuttered in 2011. Current plans envision an eventual repurposing of the structure as part of the general revitalization of downtown Birmingham. The Masonic Temple Building is listed on the National Register as a part of the Fourth Avenue Historic District. The Prince Hall Grand Lodge still owns the building, but the grand auditorium hasn’t been used for meetings since the early 2000s. Sadly, the building has fallen into a state of disrepair. Several windows remain boarded up, but the future seems bright for the blighted building.
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