LaVilla: Black Masonic Temple

by Tim Gilmore, 11/30/2018

1. Ursa Major

It stands like a strong fire-cured six story red brick. Like an urban heart. Like the longtime brain of the black community situated tall on its own city block.

And as Genaro Urso says, standing at the cornerstone of the 104 year old Black Masonic Temple at 410 Broad Street, Black Masonry, from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, functioned as “the conduit for information in the black community. Before Twitter, before Facebook, this,” Gerry says and moves his muscled arms up at the façade of the building, “was Social Media.”

Gerry’s a past master and the grand historian for The Most Worshipful Union Grand Lodge of the Most Ancient and Honorable Fraternity, Free and Accepted Masons, State of Florida and Belize, Central America, Jurisdiction, Incorporated Prince Hall Affiliated.

Gerry’s passion for the history of this organization spills constantly over. The surname “Urso” derives from Latin for “bear.” It suits. He has a master’s degree in History from Trinity College but he’s put his muscles to use restoring houses on the Eastside and in Springfield. With his broad shoulders and oak limbs, Gerry Urso’s the bear of Masonic history in North Florida.

Gesturing with enthusiasm as he stands in the foyer and points to photos of grand masters from a century ago, Gerry zeroes in on Tillman Valentine, grand master in the 1880s. He speaks of how a shot that “struck and dismounted a cannon” injured Valentine, fighting for the third regiment of the United States Colored Troops, Company B, at Morris Island, South Carolina in the Civil War.

Tillman Valentine, image courtesy Genaro Urso

“And he wrote the most beautiful letters to his wife from the battlefield,” Gerry says. “You just have to read them.” He recalls Valentine writing about his children, about how “lonesome” he was, about commanding 75 men, about how:

“This evening they say the rebels is coming with 1000 men to atact us dear wife donte forget to pray for me for nothing but the mursies of god can save me there is hundreds and thousands of men getting killed every day.”

Many of the United States Colored Troops from the Northeast settled in Jacksonville after the war and became influential leaders in the Most Worshipful Union Grand Lodge, founded in 1870. Gerry relates to them. He comes from Massachusetts, but his home is the Black Masonic Temple. He also comes from a long line of Masons.

from the NAACP’s The Crisis, 1914

When he became a third degree master Mason, he says, he sat in his car outside the temple, late at night, after everyone else had gone home. He felt the lines of history move through him. Overcome, this great bear thought of his grandfather and wept.

2. “The Finest Temple of Any Jurisdiction”

When Grand Master John H. Dickinson mailed invitations to the grand opening of the “Lodge of Colored Masons of Florida,” he said, “The Florida Grand Lodge has just erected the finest Temple of any jurisdiction of Colored Masons in the world.”

Mark and Sheftall’s rendering, from Robert Broward’s The Architecture of Henry John Klutho: The Prairie School in Jacksonville

In fact, architects Earl Mark and Leeroy Sheftall had designed one of the most architecturally significant buildings in Florida. Mark and Sheftall were prodigés of Henry John Klutho, the city’s most famous architect, who had adapted Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style for Florida’s swampy flatlands. Mark and Sheftall left Klutho’s office to start their own firm in 1912 and began with a commission for the grandest building in black Jacksonville.

Louis Sullivan’s Wainwright Building

They looked to the 1890 terracotta Wainwright Building in St. Louis, designed by Louis Sullivan, “father of the skyscraper.” The rhythm of windows and vertical shafts is similar, but Sullivan’s building uses its vertical lines to accentuate its height, at 10 stories, while Mark and Sheftall’s design elegantly embodies the cube. Their design answers Sullivan’s rust-colored earthenness by taking the shape of that which principally colors it: the dark red brick that frames and sets off the limestone colored massing on each side. It’s strong and beautiful and clean, just like its purpose: the brick foundation of the black community.

Black Masonic Temple, under construction, from Robert Broward’s The Architecture of Henry John Klutho: The Prairie School in Jacksonville

Black Masonry empowered black business, which made it a target of Jim Crow Law and Southern racism. As late as 2016, Florida law held that black people could not belong to Masonic orders. The 1893 law, passed 17 years after the Black Masonic lodge formed, incorporated the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Florida, “consisting of Masons exclusively of the white race.” While not enforced, the law meant that Black Masonry has operated, by its very existence, in defiance of early Jim Crow laws for more than a century.

courtesy Florida State Archives, www.floridamemory.com

Meanwhile, the 1924 proceedings of the Grand Lodge of Florida record, in answer to the question, “Can a member of the Ku Klux Klan become a member of a Masonic Lodge?” that “The Masonic Order stands for freedom of speech and liberty of conscience. We have no right to forbid a [Mason] to join the Ku Klux Klan.”

But Black Masonry had existed in America since shortly after the War for Independence, when a black abolitionist named Prince Hall founded African Lodge no. 459 in Boston in 1784. Two centuries later, Black Freemasonry is often called Prince Hall Freemasonry.

Prince Hall, image courtesy unionlodge21.com

Black Masonic orders across the country became as important in organizing black labor, politics and community as the black church. Against the menace of American white supremacy and the threats of Jim Crow and the KKK, Black Masonic orders functioned as a sort of shield government, democratically enabling black communities and individuals and protecting them from the worst crimes of municipal, state, and federal governments.

3. Lines of Light

Picture this architectural gem, Mark and Sheftall’s greatest standing design, just slightly off-angle, from an aerial shot. See the red brick frame its yellow brick face at each side of the building. Run your eyes across the bands of windows crosshatched with tall brick piers.

Now picture thousands of lines of green light, like grids of thin sharp lasers, piercing and emerging from the building on all sides, diagonal green beams cutting at countless angles across the grid lines. So many needles of light enter and exit the Black Masonic Temple that this solid stalwart brick of a building is nearly eclipsed by their collective glow.

The lines of light are the lives of the black community that have worked their way through the Black Masonic Temple for more than a century.

Masonic membership rolls

In the early and middle 20th century, the Black Masonic Temple headquartered attorneys, bankers, detective agencies, black newspapers, physicians, dentists, real estate agents, tax consultants, insurance agents, barber shops, tailors, confectioners, pharmacies, and soda fountains. Florida’s first black-owned bank, the Anderson Bank, operated from what the 1926 Negro Blue Book, a black social register, called “one of the finest buildings owned by Negroes in the world.”

First floor retail businesses opened to the sidewalk, while inside stretched a long marble foyer ornamented with dentils and Prairie Style crosses. Second floor professional services opened to the general public from elevators and a busy stairwell. The third floor mixed Masonic and public offices, while the fourth floor held only important Masonic offices, including that of grand master.

The fifth floor opens up into the large auditorium, the “Grand East,” since all Masonic lodges face the direction the sun rises, and the sixth floor leads to balcony seating for the Grand East and smaller lodge meeting rooms.

It was in the Grand East, which seats 900 people, that Princess Laura Adorkor Kofi preached to impassioned followers in the 1920s. She’d been on her deathbed in Ghana when she heard voices telling her to go to America. She preached flaming sermons in Detroit, Chicago and New York and joined causes with Marcus Garvey’s pan-African movement. By the time Garvey denounced her, she’d founded the African Universal Church and Commercial League and headquartered it in Jacksonville. A reporter for Garvey’s Negro World newspaper said Kofi preached every night of the week in Jacksonville and twice on Sunday.

The Black Masonic Temple had always opened itself to new voices, the crossroads of ideas and passions in Black Florida. Prince Hall himself had briefly espoused early back-to-Africa principles. So the African princess stood at the podium before a filled Grand East, seats packed at both the lower level and the balcony, and preached fire between continents. She’d come to the wilderness of America to call black Americans home, in their hearts if not across the ocean, to Africa.

Meanwhile, the Temple concentrated black business right here in the old central neighborhood of LaVilla. During renovations in 2003, workers sifting through decades of accumulated storage in the former Anderson Bank offices found a tarnished directory sign, marble surfaced with gold lettering, that now stands just inside the foyer. An arrow with the words “NEXT DOOR” points to the offices of Leander L. Shaw, “AttyAtLaw.” The sign lists second floor offices for two real estate firms, B&B Detective Agency, and seven different attorneys, including Daniel Webster Perkins.

portrait of Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw, 1983, courtesy WFSU Public Media

The sign captured Shaw and Perkins at opposite ends of their careers. Perkins practiced law in Jacksonville for more than half a century, from 1919 to 1972. Shaw began practicing in Jacksonville in the 1960s and became the first black chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court in 1990. The directory sign marks a crossroads in both place and time.

4. The Tunnels that Hold Up the City

We sink a thousand years down stone steps to this great lovely building’s depths. They would hold us at least that long. Massive brick and concrete plinths stand in the dank like the feet of giants. Old green paint chalks in the humid deep and mold climbs the walls.

Fluorescent tube lights high above reflect off the inches of water that skim the floor. We’re down beneath Broad Street. Basements are rare in Florida; these waters are why. The plinking of our shoes in the water echoes off the heft of the building above us.

We stop in a wide chamber of brick and stone. Just up a knee-high concrete ledge, eight rows of cinder blocks close the tunnel.

“And here we come to the end of it,” Gerry says. In 2003, workers blocked up the tunnel that leads across the alley and beneath the old Richmond Hotel, where jazz and blues musicians stayed in the 1930s and ’50s.

“You have to think,” says Gerry, “for whatever other purposes these tunnels must have had, that part of the reason was protection. This building is going up in 1912 to 1916. It was a marker. An enormous sign of black prosperity in the middle of the city. And then come the Florida massacres of the ’20s.”

In the Ocoee Massacre of 1920, a lynch mob coalesced in response to voter registration drives, murdering between 50 and 60 black residents and destroying the black portion of the Central Florida town of Ocoee. That same day, the Ku Klux Klan organized a large parade and demonstration in the heart of Jacksonville to terrorize black voters.

courtesy The Orlando Sentinel

In the Perry Massacre of 1922, thousands of whites formed a lynch mob that tortured and burnt a black man named Charles Wright, collecting souvenirs of his burnt corpse, murdered two more black men, then burnt the town of Perry’s black community—the black church, school, homes and Masonic lodge.

In the Rosewood Massacre of 1923, when the black Gulf Coast town rallied together after a Rosewood resident was lynched, hundreds of whites ransacked and burnt the whole town—its mills, its stores, its three churches, its school, its wooden houses and its Masonic hall.

“White supremacists understood the role of the Masonic lodge. Every black community had a Masonic center,” Gerry says, his Massachusetts accent echoing on the Florida waters underneath Broad Street, “and this,” he adds and points up above us, “was Jacksonville’s.”

These tunnels constitute the empty space in the community foundation, the hollow carved out of bedrock to offer solace should worse come to worst, the communal unconscious on which stands the city.

8. A Window Opens Out

So we rise again through time, through the levels and lives enacted in this building, this center of gravity, this urban heart. Coming up, you can taste the sunlight trickling off a nextdoor fire escape through a window. And the decades fall away.

In 1938 Pedro Mendez, a Cuban tailor, married Jamie Crumley, who sold advertising for the black newspaper The Advocate. Crumley worked upstairs from Mendez in the Black Masonic Temple. She’d taken the stairs down from the newsroom to Mendez’s shop to sell him ad space. She was 20 years younger, but Mendez was twice a widower and had vowed that if he married a third time, “This wife will bury me, not the other way around.”

Pedro Mendez, courtesy Padrica Mendez

In April, 1956, The Florida Star headlined its front page: “Masons Revolt Fails as Rules Are Waived,” reporting that “a situation of demoralization and discontent” within the order was met stiffly with Grand Master C.H. Henry setting “aside parliamentary procedure” to “re-elect the entire slate of lodge officers for another term.”

By the late 1960s, the neighborhood of LaVilla had become “dicey,” Patricia Moman Bell remembers. When she was a teenager, she still accompanied her father to his real estate office in the Black Masonic Temple. It didn’t surprise her that a transgender woman on the street always greeted her father and seemed to have a crush on him.

After the woman called Lawrence Moman “Honey,” however, and Pat’s father greeted her warmly, Pat decided to inform him, when they stepped from the elevator toward his second-floor office, “That was a man down there on the street.”

She remembers her father explaining non-judgmentally, “You know what? If she could have been born differently, she probably would have.”

In 2018, second floor offices wait, newly renovated, empty, old numbers on frosted glass in the transoms above the doors. On the third floor, young black girls in long white dresses prepare for an Order of the Eastern Star event. In the small lodge room in the northeastern corner of the top of the building, a window opens out over what’s left of LaVilla, over the Clara White Mission and Old Stanton School on West Ashley Street, over the whole tumult of history’s ghosts forever entangled invisibly in the receding landscape.

from the NAACP’s The Crisis, 1942