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Manliness and Its Discontents The Black Middle Class and the Transformation of Masculinity, 1900-1930
By Martin Summers
The University of North Carolina Press Copyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One Does Masonry Make Us Better Men?
Much to their delight, individuals who joined a Prince Hall lodge could claim membership in a fraternal order that stretched across the diaspora and included prominent men in the fields of politics, business, science, and the arts. When Masons invoked the history of their organization, they took pride in pointing to the men of various backgrounds who hailed from North America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Indeed, Prince Hall Freemasonry and its many branches-Scottish Rite, Royal Arch, Knights Templar, Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine-assumed a diasporic character from the beginning. Black seaman from British North America and the French West Indian colonies, after having been initiated in lodges in Liverpool and London, introduced the Royal Arch Masonic and Knights Templar degrees to black Masons in Philadelphia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These forms of Masonry spread into other states throughout the antebellum era. Moreover, Prince Hall lodges existed in virtually every country in the Western Hemisphere in which blacks lived, and lodges within American cities with large black immigrant populations tended to be ethnically diverse.
Equally as important as the ethnic and national diversity of the Freemason Order was its class composition. Official historians and regular members regularly pointed to a roster that included active and former Masons such as James Forten, a sail maker and patriarch of one of Philadelphia's elite black families; Richard H. Gleaves, the son of a Haitian man and English woman, who held several positions in the United States civil service and, from 1873 to 1877, was the lieutenant governor of South Carolina; James B. Dudley, a North Carolina journalist and businessman who became the principal of the state's black land grant school; and Robert H. Terrell, the Harvard-educated teacher, civil servant, judge, and overall Washington aristocrat. In addition to the list of celebrated Masons that appeared in the histories of the order, Masons boasted of the general quality of the membership of lodges throughout the country. Shortly after the Civil War, for instance, John F. Cook, the grand master of Washington, D.C., pointed to the simultaneous growth of the order and the expansion of opportunities for blacks in the federal government. Increasing numbers of black civil servants were either already, or seeking to become, members of Prince Hall. "Again, nearly all of the officers of this Grand Lodge are in public places of some kind," Cook declared, "and they are not to be overlooked." High Marine Lodge No. 12, founded in 1890, was, according to William Grimshaw, "composed of the best citizens of Salt Lake City." G. W. Alexander of the Acme Temple of the Mystic Shrine, located in Montana, made similar assessments about the Masons of that state in 1902. Although there was a high turnover of membership-due to the transient nature of residency caused by the "depression of business"-Alexander was encouraged by the "devotion to the order." "The members realize that the badge of a Mason carries with it character and respectability," he noted. "Hence, they keep in touch with their Lodges wherever they go. None but the very best men are accepted in our Lodges."
Although not the largest fraternal order among blacks, Prince Hall Freemasonry is a prestigious tradition that has attracted many black men, particularly during the first half of the twentieth century. According to one scholar, between 1904 and 1955, membership in the order went from 46,000 to over 300,000, with most of the gains occurring prior to 1930. Despite the fact that it has been such an important institution, Prince Hall Freemasonry has attracted surprisingly little scholarship. Black Masonic orders are usually discussed as far as their relation to the civic and political lives of black communities is concerned. The most extensive, and definitive, studies of Prince Hall Freemasonry as a social institution focus on the ways in which fraternalism worked to produce a middle-class subjectivity among its participants. Yet Freemasonry was also instrumental in contributing to the gender identity formation of large numbers of middle-class black men. It is this fundamental aspect of Masonic orders with which this chapter concerns itself. By examining the fraternal order in general-and one lodge in particular-I explore how African American and African Caribbean men in the United States in the early twentieth century used the philosophy, symbolic trappings, and organizational framework of fraternalism to constitute themselves as middle-class male subjects.
As members of a fraternal organization that conferred an ideological bourgeois status, Prince Hall Freemasons concretely and symbolically constructed their gender identities within the paradigms of providership, production, and respectability. In the case of their charity work and the networking capacity of the order, black men articulated a gendered subjectivity by assuming the role of protectors of women and children and through a productive engagement with the marketplace. Symbolically, Masonry provided black men with an imaginary claim to traditional, nineteenth-century notions of manhood. Through the collective and symbolic ownership of property-as realized in the building of temples-and through the ritual celebration of artisanship, Prince Hall Freemasons invented a collective masculine self during a period when owning land, becoming a proprietor, or earning a living through skilled labor was difficult for large numbers of black men. As African American and African Caribbean men moved into urban areas within the United States, the prospects of owning property or participating in the skilled labor sector of the economy-particularly with the exclusionary policies of most unions-diminished even more. In societies that equated these achievements with social adulthood, Masonry fulfilled a role in the lives of men who were increasingly excluded from realizing these goals as individuals.
Gender identity formation for these men involved a relational process that was organized around gender, class, status, and age. As devotees to an all-male organization that placed a premium on character and respectability, Prince Hall Freemasons arrogated for themselves leadership status based on class superiority and, as Mary Ann Clawson writes concerning white Masons, "the assertion of masculine privilege and authority." In assuming a role as an important institution in black communities, the order drew links between production, providership, respectability, and racial progress and conflated them with manhood. Moreover, Masons framed these relationships as natural and transhistorical. Women became subordinated within this gendered framework of racial progress, as did men who did not conform to middle-class producer values and respectability. Because it was an organization that only accepted individuals who had reached the age of majority, Prince Hall Freemasonry also established age as a central category through which black men constituted themselves as gendered subjects. This was further accomplished through the creation of juvenile arms of the order, in which young men were inculcated with the values needed to achieve, and maintain, a "manly" status. Race also figured prominently in the gender identity formation of black Masons. As members of Prince Hall sought to lay claim to an authentic Masonic heritage, they consistently had to deal with the general white Masonic policy of nonrecognition. Although they recognized social and cultural differences of race within the profane world, African American and African Caribbean men continually asserted their equality with whites in the sacred world of Freemasonry. Since definitions of manliness were rooted in dominant Anglo-American ideas of gender and power, black men who joined Prince Hall Freemasonry reproduced a gender identity that was grounded in, and unable to transcend, the gender conventions of late-Victorian white America.
"Fate, that unknown quantity among mortals, decreed a call from some young gentlemen of Brooklyn, N.Y., whose progressive and uplifting minds made anything possible, and this call was to form a Club, with the full purpose of making it a representative Masonic Lodge." So recalled Louis Alexander Jeppe, the inaugural "worshipful master" of Carthaginian Lodge No. 47, of its auspicious beginnings. Jeppe's use of the descriptors "gentlemen," "progressive," and "uplifting" typifies the investment that Masons had in defining the order as a respectable body of men. Jeppe's representations of Carthaginian's founders, along with the ways that Masons in general referred to the character of members of the Craft, illustrate the "slippery" definitions of class that characterized the black experience in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As I discussed in the introduction, entrance into the middle class was determined as much by subjective criteria as it was by objective economic indicators. Even as income and occupation became central avenues of access to the "new" middle class, personal qualities and public behavior remained critical components of upward mobility within black communities. Or, perhaps more accurately, standards of personal character and public behavior were the means by which a self-conscious black middle class policed its borders. Respectability, character, aspirations to the ownership of property, conscientious modes of consumption and leisure were qualities and behavioral patterns that one was expected to possess before assuming a place in the black bourgeoisie. Involvement in Masonry, which stressed property ownership, respectable public behavior, and producer values, was one of the many associational routes into the black middle class. Since Freemasonry was one of the agents of class formation, then how did it socialize African American and African Caribbean men into bourgeois gender conventions? What are the relationships between class formation, acculturation, and gender identity formation? These are questions we can begin to answer by examining Carthaginian No. 47, in detail.
Carthaginian dates back to the spring of 1904, when several black Masons who had been initiated and raised to the level of Master Mason in Manhattan lodges decided to petition the Grand Lodge of New York for a charter in central Brooklyn. Starting out as merely a club of Masons and those interested in the order, the group received a dispensation, or an authorization to practice Freemasonry on a probationary basis, in October 1904 and an official charter a year later. The inaugural class of initiates numbered twenty-three, which, in addition to those seven who had already become Masons in other lodges in order to petition for a warrant in the first place, brought the total number in the lodge to thirty.
Who joined, or attempted to join, Carthaginian Lodge No. 47? Over a sixteen-year period between 1904 and 1930, at least 186 individuals were proposed for membership. Based on an analysis of the lodge's minutes, it appears to have been an ethnically diverse group. Of the eighty-two individuals for whom there is sufficient biographical information, fifty-six were listed as having been born in the United States. The birthplaces of twenty-four prospective initiates were located in the British West Indies. The remaining two listed their place of birth as Bombay, India, and St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. If this last individual is added to those from the British West Indies, twenty-five of the eighty-two proposed members-or roughly 30 percent-were from the English-speaking Caribbean. The majority of African Caribbeans who applied for membership in Carthaginian were Barbadian.
Looking at the occupational information of the applicants, the malleable character of the "new" middle class becomes fairly apparent. The two occupational categories that formed the core of the black bourgeoisie in the early twentieth century, entrepreneurial and professional, were underrepresented among those who applied for membership. Nine of the prospective initiates can be classified as professionals; the same number of individuals can be considered entrepreneurs. Combined, they represent slightly less than 22 percent of the sample. The greatest number of proposed members (twenty-four of eighty-two, or 29.2 percent) engaged in white-collar or managerial employment. Of those twenty-four, eight were messengers, five were postal employees (both clerks and letter carriers), four worked as clerks in both the public and private sectors, and two were inspectors. A building superintendent, a traveling salesman, a shop foreman, an operator, and the general secretary of the Colored Branch of the Young Men's Christian Association in Brooklyn comprised the rest of the white-collar/managerial group. The next largest contingent was employed in the service sector of the economy. Eleven applicants listed their occupations as chauffeurs, making it the most common form of employment among the eighty-two prospective members. Combined with four porters, one butler, one waiter, and one steward, the number of individuals engaged in service made up 21.9 percent of the total applicants. Semiskilled and unskilled laborers constituted almost 16 percent of those who were proposed, and the seven skilled laborers, artisans, and artists made up the smallest percentage at 8.5. At least one student-although in his twenties-attempted to join the lodge as well.
Only one significant pattern emerges when an occupational breakdown of the applicants according to ethnicity is made. A plurality of the African Caribbean applicants was engaged in personal service employment (ten of twenty-five, or 40 percent), while a plurality of prospective African American members consisted of white-collar employees (twenty of fifty-six, or 35.7 percent). Conversely, those African Americans employed as service workers only made up 14 percent of the total African American candidates (eight of fifty-six), and there were only four African Caribbeans who worked in white-collar jobs (or 16 percent of the total). The disparity might be partly explained by considering the possibility that African Americans were more likely than black immigrants to secure employment in municipal, state, and federal agencies. No African Caribbeans among the sample, for instance, were postal employees or city clerks, which explains, in part, their lower numbers among the white-collar/managerial group.
Although Carthaginian accepted applications from people of various occupational backgrounds, the majority of those who, certainly from their perspective, were fortunate enough to be considered for membership tended to fall within the economic parameters of the middle class.
Excerpted from Manliness and Its Discontents by Martin Summers Copyright © 2004 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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