What became known as Colored Masonry came into existence in Alabama in 1867, two years after the Civil War. By 1869, there were between eight and ten traditionally recognized lodges in the state. These lodges were operated under charters issued by the states of Ohio, Tennessee, and Missouri. In September 1870, the Masters, Wardens, and legal representatives of the subordinate lodges gathered at the Colored Masonic Hall in Mobile to create a Colored Grand Lodge known as the Independent Most Worshipful Grand Lodge, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of Alabama.
The lodges that attended the convention were all located in Mobile and operated under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge in Ohio. In 1874, another Colored Grand Lodge was formed and known as the National Compact Grand Lodge. The two Grand Lodges operated independently in Alabama until a convention in August 1878 brought them together to form the present-day Grand Lodge of Alabama, adopting the name Most Worshipful Grand Lodge, F. & A. M. of Alabama. At the time of this consolidation, the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge included 22 lodges with approximately 300 members. Today, the Grand Lodge is comprised of 235 active subordinate lodges with approximately 6,000 members.
After 1900, as Birmingham surged forward to become Alabama’s largest city, the Grand Lodge was eager to build a state headquarters downtown. The Prince Hall Masons wanted a flagship building that would also be commercial space for African-American businesses in a state where most such venues were unavailable. 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 downtown around what would become the 4th Avenue Business District. For decades, the area was a booming social hub complete with packed theaters, restaurants, jazz clubs, and vibrant city life.
Beginning in 1913, the fifth-elected Grand Master, Walter Thomas Woods, spearheaded the project and planning for a new Masonic Temple Building. However, construction would remain on hold for several more years as funds were slowly raised from Masons throughout Alabama. The Masonic Temple was designed by one of the first accredited African American architect firms, Robert Taylor and Louis Persley. Taylor, a North Carolina native and the son of a carpenter, was the first Black student to attend MIT. In collaboration with founder Booker T. Washington, Taylor designed many of the buildings on the Tuskegee campus. The much younger Persley was from Georgia, a 1914 graduate of Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh who had returned to the South to join Washington and Taylor at Tuskegee.
In 1922, construction on the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge, F. & A. M. of Alabama Temple Building began at 1630 Fourth Avenue North.
The seven-story Mannerist-influenced, Renaissance Revival-style building was constructed by the Windham Brothers Construction Company. The entire construction cost of $658,000 was paid by contributions, therefore zero debt was accrued by the Masons. The Masonic Temple Building relies on annual contributions from the Prince Hall Free Masons to pay for maintenance and upkeep. Upon completion, the Masonic Temple Building was the largest and best-equipped state-of-the-art luxurious building built and paid for by Negroes in the entire world.
In addition to housing the state headquarters for Prince Hall Masons and the Order of the Eastern Star, the Temple Building served as the exclusive social and cultural center for the African American community for many years. This was one of the only buildings in the state where Blacks could freely enter through the front doors and did not have to use a side or back door. Black fraternal groups, physicians, lawyers, dentists, and insurance agents leased space throughout the building. In time, the Masonic Temple 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.
Residents gather on a street corner outside of the Masonic Temple in May 1963 as African American civil rights activists started the Birmingham Campaign – a series of sit-ins, boycotts, and marches against segregation laws.
With the Temple in the background, the peaceful demonstrations of the Birmingham Campaign were met with violence, tear gas, and police dogs. The events were a turning point in the civil rights movement, making front-page news around the world.
The Prince Hall Masonic Temple is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a part of the 4th Avenue Historic District. The State of Alabama Department of Archives credits this Colored Masonic Temple with creating the second major wave of African American businesses in 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. The Prince Hall Grand Lodge still owns the building, but the grand auditorium hasn’t been used for meetings since the early 2000s. After serving the community for more than 80 years, the Masonic Temple Building was closed in 2011 due to maintenance costs. Unfortunately, the building has fallen into a state of disrepair while sitting dormant. Several windows remain boarded up, but the future seems bright for the blighted structure.
In January 2009, Main Street Birmingham hosted a workshop at the building to generate ideas for creative development. A campaign to raise $10-15 million for the restoration and expansion of the Temple was launched by the Grand Lodge in 2017, shortly after it was made part of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. Schemes for possible expansion discussed at the time included a multi-story parking deck to the west of the Temple with retail spaces on the ground floor. In 2019, the Grand Lodge announced it was working with Historic District Developers on a $29 million mixed-use building redevelopment. Urban Impact Inc. and the Birmingham Department of Innovation and Economic Opportunity also participated in the project, which is intended to qualify for Historic Preservation Tax Credits, New Market Tax Credits, and Opportunity Zone tax credits. In April 2022, the Historic District Developers began removing, cataloging, and archiving the artifacts that remain in the building.
The Masonic Temple was completed debt-free with donations made up of mostly dimes and nickels from Prince Hall Masons.
In 2016, the National Park Service declared the Masonic Temple a part of Birmingham’s Historic Civil Rights District.
The cornerstone for the Birmingham Masonic Temple, officially named the “Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Alabama,” was laid in 1922, and the building opened in 1924.
Rising through four of the seven stories to an abbreviated pediment flattened against the brick facade, 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.”
The seven-story Renaissance-Revival structure has a steel skeleton, the form of the building was conceived by its designers as a large, quadrilinear commercial edifice with a thin Neoclassical applique that wraps around two sides.
Once you enter the main lobby, the first thing you see is the Alabama marble floors and walls that surround the lobby elevators.
When the Temple opened on April 1, 1924, the fireproof building included 73 offices, ladies’ restrooms, businesses on the ground floor, and a Grand Hall auditorium that could seat 2,000 people.
The chandeliers in the lobby are not original and were replaced in the 1980s.
Behind the wall of frosted glass was once a jewelry store. This set of stairs goes to the basement or the Grand Hall auditorium.
A 1952 Christmas advertisement from The Birmingham Reporter, a Black-owned newspaper located on the 5th floor.
A look inside the small space that once was Ford & Campbell Jewelers in the lobby.
An advertisement for the Temple Bowling Center ( The Birmingham News dated March 12, 1941.)
When the Temple first opened, there was a bowling alley in the basement that was later converted into a gym. Eventually, the gym was replaced with a billiards hall.
In 1963, while in Birmingham to recruit nonviolent protestors for the Birmingham Campaign, Martin Luther King, Jr. stopped by the Masonic Temple Building and played a game of billiards on this table.
A photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. playing pool in the basement of the Temple, behind him, is former Grand Master and Endowment Secretary S. J. Bennett. (Photo courtesy of the Prince Hall Masons and property of AbandonedSoutheast.com)
A sign on the basement wall dated 1983 reminded patrons of a price increase. Taped on the wall are obituaries of former Masons.
Several businesses are printed on this wooden door. Forniss Printing Company, Knick Knack Bar, and Good Deal News Distribution Company once operated out of the basement.
A reminder of the Cold War era, MRE rations dated July 1963 remain stockpiled under the basement stairs.
A men’s restroom in the basement of the Masonic Temple Building.
This door in the basement was originally on the 5th-floor office of Dr. Joseph Price Pearson. Pearson was born in 1902 in Birmingham and attended Birmingham High School and Miles College before becoming a Chiropodist, receiving his degree from the Illinois College of Chiropody. In 1930, Pearson became Dean of the Birmingham Institute and Sanitarium.
When the Temple Building opened in 1924, the Booker T. Washington Library moved into one of the ground-floor spaces. It was the first lending library open to Black citizens of Birmingham. The library expanded into adjoining space in 1927, and into additional rooms on the opposite side of the building’s entrance in 1933. A 1953 report noted that the Washington library had the largest book collection of any of the city’s branch libraries, with its holdings reflecting the needs of the faculty and students at Miles College and Daniel Payne College. In 1956, the Booker T. Washington library’s collection was moved to the newly built Smithfield Library on 8th Avenue West.
One of the last businesses to occupy a ground-level storefront before the building closed was Patton’s Beauty Shop, owned by Beatrice Patton.
The old Vendo Coca-Cola machine in the beauty shop has city licenses dating back to the Civil Rights era.
Next door to Patton’s Beauty Shop was this small space once occupied by John’s Alterations and Repair. Several old suit jackets still hang on a rack.
Your Flower Shop occupied this ground-level store when the building closed in 2011. The business moved a block over to 16th Street North and is still open today.
A few doors down from Your Flower Shop was Simp’s Barber and Style Shop.
The last occupant of the ground floor space at 402 17th Street North was Esquire’s Shoe Shine and Repairs. Years ago, this space was home to the Temple Pharmacy.
This set of stairs in the main lobby leads only to the Grand Hall auditorium.
After the Masonic Temple Building closed, a fire damaged the second floor.
The men’s restroom is located in the lobby on the second floor.
A ticket window greets patrons before they enter the Grand Hall auditorium.
Grand Master Walter T. Woods and the Prince Hall Masons pose for a photo in the Grand Hall shortly after opening in 1924.
In addition to housing the Alabama headquarters for the Prince Hall Masons and the Order of the Eastern Star, the Temple Building served as the exclusive social and cultural center for Birmingham’s African-American community.
The Grand Hall auditorium could seat as many as 2,000 patrons. Several legendary Black performers played here including jazz musicians Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong, Fats Waller, and Birmingham-native Erskine Hawkins.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Masonic Temple Building was packed with spectators watching local boxers slug it out on Friday nights. Some of the names listed in local newspapers mention boxers Six-Second Allen and Bad News Varner in main event 10-round fights.
In 1932, the Communist Party-affiliated International Labor Defense held a civil rights conference in the Masonic Temple auditorium in response to the infamous Scottsboro Boys trial, in which nine innocent Black teens were accused of rape. The gathering became one of Birmingham’s first major civil rights events, setting the stage for future civil rights actions in the city.
Jackson’s Laboratory was a small denture laboratory owned by Emmitt Jackson Sr. on the 3rd floor in a narrow hallway behind the auditorium.
A small exam room inside Jackson’s Laboratory.
Jackson’s Laboratory only had two employees. They made dentures, crowns, bridges, and dental implants for other dental clinics in the Masonic Temple Building.
Several businesses were on the third floor including Mercedes Entertainment.
Office space on the 3rd floor outside of the Grand Hall appears like someone walked away and never came back.
Keys and locks remain on the desk, scattered among paint chips that have flaked off the ceiling over time.
One of the first businesses you see as you enter the 4th floor is Masonic Library and Church Supplies. Owned and managed by William Thornton, the store sold Masonic and Eastern Star supplies, bibles, footlockers, jewelry, books, and hosiery.
Down the hall were the offices of Social Services and Housing belonging to Benjamin Greene. Greene was a former president of the Jefferson County Citizens Coalition and former commissioner of the Housing Authority of the Birmingham District.
Greene served as president of the Harriman Park Civic League, and later as president of the Harriman Park neighborhood association. Benjamin Greene Village is named in honor of his service to the housing authority.
Benjamin Greene’s photos sit on a windowsill in his office. He was inducted into the Birmingham Gallery of Distinguished Citizens in 2000. He worked for Alabama Power Company for nearly 40 years, except for a 3-year stint in the U.S. Army during World War II. After retiring from Alabama Power, he was hired as an assistant to Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington.
A calendar dated January 2000 was taped to the wall behind the office door next to a flyer for Judge Lillian J. Greene, Court of Common Pleas.
Green paint chips off an interior hallway on the 4th floor. The first door on the left leads into one of several meeting halls. Construction lights line the hallways for a pending renovation.
A 1950s 48-star flag hangs on the wall in a meeting hall on the 4th floor.
A pair of metal roll-up doors divide the meeting hall space. Scattered throughout the room are many handmade wooden trunks from various lodges. These trunks once held masonic regalia, flags, and all sorts of paperwork.
Many lodges and labor unions used this 4th-floor space. Many of these lodges are still listed in the directory in the Temple’s main lobby.
Next door to the large meeting hall is a smaller space, Hall No. 3, where the NAACP would meet.
This office was once home to the Billionaire Records Label, Flip the Script Production Company, and the Derlesia Sims Gospel Show.
At one time, the Masonic Temple Building housed as many as eight dental clinics. Pictured above is the door to Shakespeare Dental Clinic.
Many of the offices were simply locked after they closed with everything remaining inside. On the 5th floor was the wood-paneled dental clinic of Dr. Robert M. Howard.
Dr. Robert M. Howard was born in 1925 in Blue Field, West Virginia. He graduated from West Virginia State University in 1942 and was a World War II veteran. After graduation, he continued his studies at Meharry Medical College where he earned his Doctor of Dental Surgery degree. The door on the left leads to Howard’s office.
Items stacked on a table in the reception room.
A poster on the wall is dated 1996. This may have been around the time the dentist closed. The door on the right leads to a patient exam room.
Dr. Howard began and continued practicing dentistry for over 50 years in the Masonic Temple Building. He was also the company dentist at Stockham Valves and Fittings for over 35 years until it closed.
Dr. Howard received numerous awards and honors from organizations including Urban Impact Inc. and membership to The President’s Club of Alabama.
A small examination room inside Howard’s dental clinic.
Inside the dental clinic were various bottles from Dewberry Drug Co. Inc, Temple Pharmacy, and Birmingham Apothecary. Dewberry Drug Company Inc., originally Dewberry & Sons, was established in 1907 and located in downtown Birmingham, later in Five Points West and Roebuck. The downtown location closed in 1995 and the company was dissolved in 2002. Birmingham Apothecary was founded in 1914 and is still in business today.
Next door to his clinic was Dr. Howard’s dental laboratory.
Another dental clinic located on the 5th floor was the office of Dr. B. M. Jefferson, DDS.
A small dental laboratory located between two exam rooms in the office of Dr. B. M. Jefferson.
Down the hall from Howard’s clinic was the dental office of Florita Earlene Jamison, her friends knew her as “ReeRee”. She was the daughter of physician Dr. Earle S. Jamison and one of the few, if not only, female dentists in the Temple Building. Like many within the city’s African American community, the Jamison family lived on Dynamite Hill.
Attorney Arthur Davis Shores passed the Alabama State Bar examination in 1937, and from 1939 to 1949 was the only African American lawyer practicing in Alabama’s courts. After a few years of experience with debt collections and divorces, Shores spent most of his career on civil rights cases, working independently as a staff attorney for the NAACP, often collaborating with associates such as Thurgood Marshall. Shores had his office here on the 5th floor.
In 1938, Shores represented seven Black teachers who successfully sued the Alabama Board of Registrars for illegally denying them the right to vote. The next year, on behalf of the NAACP, he successfully sued the Birmingham Police Department for brutality in the assault of labor leader Will Hall. Shores received threats from the Ku Klux Klan during the trial. A fight broke out in the Jefferson County Courthouse after the verdict, resulting in enormous publicity for Shores. It was later revealed that the fight was instigated by a paid agent. Because of his success, the NAACP hired him in scores of other voting rights cases across Alabama. He also sued to get Black teachers in Jefferson County Schools the same pay scale as their White colleagues.
In 1955, Arthur Shores represented Autherine Lucy in her petition to be enrolled at the University of Alabama, which went before the Supreme Court. She was allowed to register for classes but suspended indefinitely after three days of belligerent protests on the basis that the University could not provide a safe learning environment for her. The NAACP sued again, claiming that the University effectively conspired with a mob to deny her education, however, she was permanently expelled for participating in the “slander” of the institution via that suit. The offices of the NAACP were padlocked following a May 26, 1956, order by Montgomery Circuit Judge Walter Jones banning the organization from operating in the state of Alabama.
During the Birmingham Campaign, Arthur Shores represented Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth, and the other demonstrators who were arrested. He became a leader in the 1963 efforts to integrate Birmingham City Schools and later appealed to nullify the arrests of 3,000 peaceful protestors during the Birmingham Campaign before the Supreme Court.
In 1977, Arthur Shores retired from public service and retired from practicing law in the 1980s. He was given the William Robert Ming Advocacy Award by the NAACP in 1977 and inducted into the Alabama Lawyers Hall of Fame in 2004. The Arthur D. Shores Law Center office building in the Civil Rights District is named in his honor.
For his involvement in the Birmingham Campaign, Shores’ home in Smithfield was firebombed twice. His wife suffered a concussion in the second incident. A series of bombings at the height of the crisis earned the neighborhood the nickname “Dynamite Hill”. The bombing set off rioting against police in the neighborhood and one person was killed and others injured. A few days after the bombing, the FBI took over the case under a provision of the 1960 Civil Rights Act. The violence culminated on September 15, 1963, when members of the KKK bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and killed four young girls. (Photo courtesy of AL.com)
In April 1965, a bomb exploded at the home of Toussaint L. Crowell injuring his 13-year-old son. A box of dynamite was planted in the alley behind Crowell’s garage. The blast destroyed the garage and sent his son stumbling through the dark into his parents’ bedroom. Glass from his bedroom window had showered down on him. Luckily, he only had a gash on his hand. A police search began that would last until daylight. Two other bombs were planted at the homes of then-Mayor Albert Boutwell and Councilwoman Nina Miglionico, but the bombs were disarmed before they exploded. Mayor Boutwell and his wife were not home, but his son might have been killed if the bomb hidden in the shrubbery had gone off. The city summoned the demolition team from Fort McClellan to disarm the boxes of dynamite.
A look outside of the former offices of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company on the 6th floor. The rusted neon sign still hangs on the building. In 1905, Alonzo Franklin Herndon, a slave-born barber, founded what would become the Atlanta Life Insurance Company. For $140 he purchased a small self-help association known as the Atlanta Benevolent and Protective Association. Subsequently acquiring two other companies, the Royal Mutual Insurance Company and the National Laborers’ Protective Union, Herndon then reorganized his acquisitions as the Atlanta Mutual Insurance Association. Within three months of operation, the company covered Georgia and served more than 6,000 policyholders.
By 1915, Atlanta Mutual had become the largest Black industrial insurance company in the lower South. In September 1922, Atlanta Mutual amended its charter, increasing its capital stock to $100,000, becoming Georgia’s second Black legal reserve company, and renaming itself Atlanta Life Insurance Company. As a legal reserve company with the capability of selling all classes of insurance, Herndon’s enterprise had reached its greatest milestone. Herndon saved other failing insurance companies by merging their company with Atlanta Life Insurance, claiming his efforts were designed to build confidence in Black businesses and save jobs for African American men and women. His acquisition strategy made Atlanta Life one of the most successful Black businesses and by 1924 had expanded to other Southern states.
As one of the largest Black businesses in the South during the Jim Crow era, Atlanta Life assumed a leadership role in home mortgages, civil rights, and other areas of community development. The social and political changes during the 1950s and 1960s and the economic advances of many African Americans in the 1960s and 1970s undermined what had been a captive market for Black insurance companies. Of the more than 75 Black-owned insurance companies in operation in 1950, less than 20 remain in business today. These 6th-floor offices were last used by an insurance company when the building closed in 2011.
Throughout the years, Khedive Temple No. 16 is one of the many lodges that called the Masonic Temple home. According to their website, the purpose of the Khedive Temple is to serve the community. They create funds to give donations to major charities such as the National Diabetes Foundation, the Sickle Cell Foundation, and various other causes like lupus and breast cancer. The Khedive Temple also has units within the organization like the Bicycle Unit, Clown Unit, and Marching Patrol Unit that contribute to local charities and participate in parades.
The Khedive Temple No. 16 meeting hall on the 6th floor.
A pair of ladies’ restrooms in the back stairwell on the 6th floor.
The office of physician & surgeon Dr. D. E. Bradford on the 7th floor.
The former office of the state headquarters for The Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of Alabama is on the 7th floor.
When the Temple was completed in 1924, Professor A. A. Peters was Endowment Secretary for the Prince Hall Masons. Early one Friday morning, on December 31, 1926, Peters suddenly dropped dead in the Endowment office here on the 7th floor. A funeral service for Peters was held in the Grand Hall auditorium the following Tuesday. More than 2,000 people crowded into the Masonic Temple at the opening hour to pay their respects. Grand Master W. T. Woods served as master of ceremonies.
Professor A. A. Peters was born in 1856 and served as principal of schools covering nearly a 40-year career. When Peters was elected Endowment Secretary, the Prince Hall Masons owed the widows and orphans of the state $100,000, and no previous records had been kept. Peters struggled but managed to wipe out the $100,000 debt, install new records, and help continue the fraternity in Alabama. At his funeral, Grand Master Woods stated that more than $2,000,000 had passed through the hands of A. A. Peters during his 15 years as Endowment Secretary and he was never a penny short.
A letter dated 1926 regarding benefit claims from the desk of Endowment Secretary A. A. Peters.
An endowment certificate dated September 1924.
The former office of the Grand Master of the Prince Hall Masons.
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