Who are Prince Hall Freemasons? The story of a Black fraternal organization in Sacramento

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George Blue has his hopes pinned on a surveillance device.

Blue is a longtime member of David D. Mattock Lodge No. 87 of the Prince Hall Freemasons, a Black branch of the fraternal organization. He’s also president of the nonprofit Sacramento Masonic Building Association which owns the Del Paso Heights building where his lodge and other groups meet.

With the pandemic and a general decline in fraternal order membership having slowed business, the California Board of Equalization determined recently that the building wasn’t in use often enough to keep its partial property tax exemption for providing a community benefit. Blue was left with 90 days to appeal, which are up in May or pay an extra $3,000 a year in taxes.

To appeal, his group plans to create brochures that highlight their contributions to the community. Among those highlights, Blue said, is the device, a shot spotter on the roof provided by Sacramento Police Department in 2018 that is on 24/7, helping police identify crime. “It’s still in my opinion a valued service that we’re providing with this,” Blue said.

This effort to save the charity designation for the group’s building is one challenge in the bigger fight for the survival of the historic Prince Hall Freemason organization, whose members are aging and number around 3,000 in California. Still, these men have also done a lot of good.

Honoring history

David San Juan sat in a meeting room at the DoubleTree Sacramento hotel on March 10, showing pictures on his phone from a trip days before to Selma, Alabama.

San Juan, who holds the highest rank among the Prince Hall Freemasons of California and the title of most worshipful grand master, had met up with 700-800 members from groups across the country.

They were commemorating the 58th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when state troopers and county sheriff’s deputies beat marchers attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge as they protested suppression and intimidation of their efforts to register Black voters. Those injured included the future Rep. John Lewis (D-Atlanta), an active Prince Hall Freemason prior to his 2020 death.

Flipping through photos on his phone from the day of the event in Selma, where President Joe Biden spoke and hundreds marched, San Juan paused at a photo of some worn wooden pilings near the base of the bridge: a former slave market, in use even past Juneteenth in 1865. To San Juan, these stories have to be told.

Days later, San Juan was at a place close to his heart, at Stanley Y. Beverley Lodge No. 108 in downtown Suisun City. San Juan had requested to meet at this location, where as a teenager roughly 50 years ago, he helped renovate the building, after a Prince Hall Freemason group purchased it. His late father Andrew San Juan Jr. was part of the group.

“It’s so hard for me to stand up there and address this group and not break up,” San Juan said. “Because it means so much to me.”

Prince Hall Freemasonry was founded in 1784 by a former slave named Prince Hall and formally dates to the mid-19th century in California.

Philomathean Lodge No. 2 in downtown Sacramento is one of three original lodges in the state. Blue’s Lodge No. 87 and Harmony Lodge No. 61 are the other two Prince Hall Freemason groups in Sacramento, each meeting at the Sacramento Prince Hall Community Activity Center in Del Paso Heights.

George Blue shows a building placard outside the Sacramento Prince Hall Masonic Community Activity Center on Saturday, April 1, 2023. The 86-year-old leader of the Sacramento chapter of the Prince Hall Freemasons, a Black branch of the fraternal organization, has found himself in the position of trying to retain his hall’s charitable-purpose tax exemption

San Juan, whose home lodge is now Keystone Lodge No. 14 in Stockton said he’s seen his group’s meeting minutes dating to the 1800s – which shows its contributions to various historic events. “I know that we had those who died in World War I, at the Panama Canal, in the quarries of the Hoover Dam,” San Juan said.

Famous members

Around the country, Prince Hall Freemasonry has been a veritable who’s-who of the African-American community over the years. There have been civil rights heroes like Thurgood Marshall and Medgar Evers, athletic greats like Jesse Owens and Shaquille O’Neal, and entertainers like Al Green and Richard Pryor.

Trevor Lawrence Jr., a Grammy Award-winner who played drums in Dr. Dre’s Super Bowl halftime show is a past master of Thomas Waller Lodge No. 49 in Los Angeles. Lawrence noted that Nat King Cole was a member of his lodge.

“You don’t come in here to get something or to get a handout or get a job opportunity,” Lawrence said. “That’s not why you come. The basic (principle is) of taking a good man and making him a better man.”

Locally, Sacramento County Sheriff Jim Cooper is a member of Lodge No. 87, though he didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story. Retired California Superior Court Judge Gary E. Ransom is a member of Philomathean Lodge No. 2, listed on its website as a past master.

Prince Hall Freemasonry has also attracted a significant number of military veterans like San Juan, who served in the U.S. Army as a young man or Blue, a Vietnam War veteran who became a master mason while stationed in Berlin in 1971.

Ira Williams, a 76-year-old Vietnam-era veteran commutes from Plumas Lake to serve as secretary at Lodge No. 87. “I enjoy first of all the camaraderie and then secondly the brotherhood of masonry and just learning masonry,” Williams said.

Mark Smith, 62, the lodge’s current worshipful master, joined while he was stationed at nearby, now-closed McClellan Air Force Base. “You have a lot of positive people who want to be Masons,” Smith said. “And instead of being around a bunch of knuckleheads, we want to be around positive people who are doing great things, professional people.”

A good percentage of local members are also college graduates and belong to Greek organizations that offer long-term membership to African-Americans, according to Blue. He said that he and Ransom each belong to one such group, Kappa Alpha Psi.

Blue said his lodge is important because it is the only Prince Hall-affiliated membership building in Sacramento. His lodge, originally founded in 1955, moved into the building in 2000, setting up the nonprofit to do renovations. “It was a blighted facility,” Blue said.

The building has struggled in recent years to keep people from parking illegally in its lot at night to camp.

That said, 84-year-old Thomas Churchman, a member of Lodge No. 87 since 1978 said the building has only been graffitied a handful of times since the lodge opened. Drug dealing that used to occur on the street before his group was a presence is ancient history.

Why the organization has struggled

About 15-20 members come around Lodge No. 87 consistently, with 20-25 prior to the pandemic according to Blue. Part of the challenge in getting members to return has been that some have been cautious due to their age.

When asked, San Juan said times for the Prince Hall Freemasons weren’t hard, just different. Still, it’s clear the group and its members are aging.

San Juan estimated that Prince Hall Freemasonry reached its most popular point in the ’40s and ‘50s. Today, the average member in California is 63. The older members are important, helping tell the story of Prince Hall, San Juan emphasized. But recruiting and retaining younger people can be difficult, members acknowledge.

“We get the young,” Blue said. “They look at the old guys and say, ‘Ah man, that’s an old man’s organization.’ Well, I never did that growing up. Because my parents taught me to respect the elders.”

Stephen Webb, a Sacramento realtor and past president of the local chapter of the NAACP said challenges with attracting younger members have extended to his group, too. “You’re trying to recruit those folks and you’re hoping that they understand philosophies are a little bit different,” Webb said.

Webb remembered crab feeds that Harmony Lodge No. 61 has put on. He admitted, though, that he also declined an entreaty to join the group due to his schedule already being full.

Even Blue, who served as most worshipful grand master in the state from 2001 to 2004, couldn’t get his son to join the organization. “He told me when I talked to him about it, he said, ‘Dad, you have to go to too many meetings,’” Blue said.

George Blue shows a Lodge of the Year trophy on April 1, awarded to the Prince Hall Freemasons lodge in 2003. Membership have dwindled and they’re currently struggling to keep a partial property tax exemption because the state has ruled that the building isn’t in use enough.
George Blue shows a Lodge of the Year trophy on April 1, awarded to the Prince Hall Freemasons lodge in 2003. Membership have dwindled and they’re currently struggling to keep a partial property tax exemption because the state has ruled that the building isn’t in use enough.

One reason Prince Hall Freemasonry might have fewer members these days is ostensibly positive.

Russ Charvonia, past grand master for Masons of California – the other Masonic organization in the state recognized by the United Grand Lodge of England – said Black members were never openly disallowed. But from his group’s founding in 1850 until the 1980s, unanimous votes needed to induct members would keep Black ones out.

Now, Masons of California allows “every race and denomination and creed,” Charvonia said.

Incidentally, Masons of California have struggled as well with declining enrollment, with around 40,000 members according to a Masonic website. Charvonia said that when a non-Mason learns he’s part of the fraternity “nine times out of 10, the response I’m going to get is, ‘Oh, my grandfather was a Mason.’”

Doing good

Prince Hall Freemasonry might also suffer because the men can be modest about the good they’ve done in the world.

While San Juan gave his interview in Suisun City, a member of that lodge in his early 80s named George H. Garlington Jr. sat quietly nearby, sharing only after some time that as a young man, he’d helped desegregate lunch counters in North Carolina. San Juan said later that Garlington struggles to tell this story, since he was physically attacked for his work.

Garlington’s father George H. Garlington Sr., a fellow Prince Hall Freemason, posthumously received the Congressional Gold Medal in recent years for his actions serving in the Pacific during World War II.

Blue didn’t say in his initial interview for this piece that a street is named in his honor less than a mile from his lodge. The Sacramento Bee listed Blue in 2006 as one of several older community leaders who would have streets named after them in the Del Paso Nuevo development.

“He helped me in a lot of situations,” former Sacramento City Council member Sandy Sheedy said.

When asked about his street, Blue was quick to point out that George Spillman – a Vietnam War veteran and member of Harmony Lodge No. 61 who died in 2022 at 80 – has a street named for him close by.

Blue spoke to The Bee ahead of his 87th birthday on April 8. He said he’s reached a place in Masonry where, in recently redoing his office, he found many accumulated papers he wants to give other members.

“It sheds light on things that have gone on and what people have tried to do and they can pass it on to others,” Blue said. “But if I take it, throw it away or disregard it in some kind of way, some people may never know.”