Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge

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). Soon after Freemasonry in Alabama thrived, with lodges springing up in 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, and the Masons were determined to build a state headquarters downtown. They wanted a notable flagship building that would also be commercial space for Black businesses and professionals, 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 African-Americans from white-owned businesses across Birmingham and forced many Black businesses to move downtown in and around the Fourth Avenue Business District. Over the years, the area became a booming hub, complete with packed theaters and vibrant city life that included restaurants and jazz clubs.

Grand Master Walter T. Woods, who was also an architect, spearheaded the project, and planning for the new building began in 1913. However, construction would be on hold for several years as more funds were slowly raised from Masons throughout Alabama. Two members of the Tuskegee Institute architectural faculty, Robert Robinson Taylor and Louis H. Persley were engaged to develop drawings and specifications for the Temple. 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 an appropriate ritual in 1922. The seven-story Renaissance-revival structure has a steel skeleton, 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 accommodate 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 the 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.”

Prince Hall Masonic Temple
Construction began in 1922 and was completed by the Windham Brothers, a Birmingham-based construction company, debt-free, in 1924 at a total cost of $658,000. 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.

Besides housing the state headquarters for Prince Hall Masons, the building was a hub for the Black community and accommodated the offices of other Black fraternal groups including Freemasonry’s counterpart for women, the Order of the Eastern Star. Black physicians, lawyers, dentists, and insurance agents leased space throughout the building. Three of the 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, Erskine Hawkins, and Count Basie were regulars – as well as dances, mass meetings, and other special events.

In October 1932, the Communist Party-affiliated International Labor Defense held a civil rights conference in the Masonic Temple auditorium. It was a response to the infamous Scottsboro Boys trial, in which nine innocent Black teens were accused of rape. The gathering was one of the first major civil rights events in Birmingham, setting the stage for future civil rights actions in the city. 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. Civil rights lawyer Arthur Shores also had his offices in the Temple Building. The state headquarters of the NAACP was padlocked in 1956 when a state judge banned the organization from operating in Alabama.

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 Prince Hall Masonic Temple was shuttered in 2011. Current plans envision an eventual repurposing of the structure as part of the general revitalization of downtown Birmingham. The Prince Hall Masonic Temple is listed on the National Register as a part of the 4th 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. The Masons moved out of the building in 2011 to an adjacent building to save on maintenance costs. Sadly, the Temple has fallen into a state of disrepair. Several windows remain boarded up, but the future seems bright for the blighted structure. Efforts to restore the Masonic Temple to its former grandeur are currently underway.

Prince Hall Masonic Temple
The Prince Hall Grand Lodge is arguably the most culturally significant building in Birmingham. During segregation, the building was a hub for the Black community in Birmingham, housing retailers, professional offices, fraternal organizations, labor unions, and the first public lending library open to Blacks in the city.
17270550140_83c85494cb_b
The auditorium in the Masonic Temple was a formal meeting place located on the second and third floors and could hold 2,000 seats. Legendary acts like Birmingham-native Erskine Hawkins, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and Count Basie’s band performed regularly in the auditorium.
Masonic Temple
Today, the building is a historic Civil Rights and architectural landmark.
Masonic Temple
The Colored Masonic Temple was, and still is, headquarters to Alabama’s Black Masons.
Masonic Temple
An early 20th-century photo of Booker T. Washington remains in an upstairs office in the Masonic Temple.
22747339832_43bfc938c0_k.jpg

Masonic Temple

Masonic Temple
A closet of event banners, books on Free Masonry, and Masonic ceremonial regalia.
28824802161_2c580ae314_k
28381114894_dcf5552085_k
Masonic Temple
The city’s first major meeting of civil rights activists took place in the Masonic Temple in 1932.
Masonic Temple
A headcount of membership written on a chalkboard in a meeting room dated 1987.
Masonic Temple
The Mortuary Account of the Endowment Department pays the death claims to wives and orphans of deceased Masons.
Masonic Temple
NAACP support stickers act as a reminder of the past in an upstairs hallway. On May 26, 1956, the office doors of the NAACP inside the Masonic Temple were padlocked by the 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. 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.
Masonic Temple
Masonic Temple
A coffin was found lying in the middle of one of the upstairs meeting halls, probably used as a bed by the homeless.
28799622812_702e89797b_k
Most businesses in the Temple had hand-painted glass doors.
28904624925_d9b2b0c531_k
A vintage check-writing machine.
28619529710_e31f42b04a_k (1)
Stacks of decades-old books from past meetings in an upstairs room.
image3
image4
An old Coca-Cola machine in the basement hair salon. At one time, a number of black-owned businesses were housed in the ground floor. The basement also had been outfitted as a bomb shelter. Civil-defense supplies from the 1950s and 1960s, including water and canned biscuits, are reminders of Birmingham’s Jim Crow past. The Masons plan to use these artifacts as museum pieces once the building is reopened.
image1
Dozens of wooden hand-made trunks were stacked in several upstairs rooms. Each trunk is padlocked shut.
28714572680_c425c1e32e_k
The Colored Masonic Temple was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 as part of the Fourth Avenue Historic District. Today, the building sits in a state of disrepair as finances are raised for its pending restoration.

Thanks for reading. I appreciate your support. Please share the blog with your friends.

You can find me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. For more amazing abandoned places from across Alabama, check out my books Abandoned Birmingham and Abandoned Alabama: Exploring the Heart of Dixie.

20 comments

  1. As a Black child and teen, I visited the Masonic Hall frequently. Our family doctor, Dr. Bradford was there. Dr. Bradford also made house calls. As a teen i attended dances there in the Grand Hall. One of my mother’s best friends was a secretary with Booker T. Washington insurance . There was a set of apartments for Blacks in Ensley called Prince Hall apartments. I have wonderful memories from that era.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I have certainly enjoyed my study of the 8 Yellowstone Dr. Old Bridge Twp. masonic building yet it breaks my heart to see the ruins that the building is in today.
    It seems that the struggles that the black men and women of yesteryear was/is in vain because of the lack of interest
    to maintain the history or these sacrifices and accomplishments. I am a former OES and past the productive age now but I wish that I could in some way instill a little enthusiasm in the youth of today .the Greek words “enthusiasm”
    To be faithful over a few, is to be ruler over many

    Like

Leave a Reply to Syl Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: