In Alabama, two years after the end of the Civil War, the beginnings of what would later be referred to as “Colored” Masonry could be found. By 1869, the state possessed between eight and ten lodges that were recognized for their historical significance. Ohio, Tennessee, and Missouri are the three states that are responsible for granting charters to their respective lodges.
In September 1870, the Masters, Wardens, and legal representatives of the subordinate lodges met in Mobile’s Colored Masonic Hall to form the Independent Most Worshipful Grand Lodge, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of Alabama.
The convention’s lodges were all based in Mobile and were overseen by the Grand Lodge of Ohio. In 1874, the National Compact Grand Lodge, another Colored Grand Lodge, was established.
Until a meeting in August 1878 brought the two Grand Lodges in Alabama together under one roof, Freemasonry in the state was divided into two separate bodies. The resulting organization, now known as the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge, F. & A. M. of Alabama, is the current Grand Lodge of Alabama.
At the time of its unification, the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge was comprised of 22 lodges, each of which had approximately 300 members. Currently, there are approximately 6,000 members and 235 active subordinate lodges under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge. After the year 1900, Birmingham overtook Montgomery as Alabama’s most populous city, and the Grand Lodge was eager to build a state headquarters in the city’s downtown. In a state with a scarcity of facilities of this kind, the Prince Hall Masons had the goal of constructing a landmark building that would also provide space for African-American businesses to do their business.
There was no such thing as a Black business district in the early twentieth century. Jim Crow laws, which allowed for racial segregation, prohibited Blacks from working in White-owned businesses throughout Birmingham. This prompted African-American businesses to relocate downtown, giving rise to the 4th Avenue Business District. For decades, the neighborhood was a thriving social center, complete with crowded theaters, restaurants, jazz clubs, and a thriving city life.
Walter Thomas Woods was the fifth Grand Master to be chosen. Starting in 1913, he oversaw the idea and planning for a new Masonic Temple Building. But construction would be put off for a few years while money was slowly raised from Alabama Masons.
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The Masonic Temple was designed by Robert Taylor and Louis Persley, one of the first authorized African-American architectural firms. Taylor, a carpenter’s son from North Carolina, was the school’s first Black student. Taylor, along with Tuskegee founder Booker T. Washington, designed many of the buildings on the Tuskegee campus. Persley came from Georgia and graduated from Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh in 1914 before returning to the South to join Washington and Taylor at Tuskegee.
The seven-story Mannerism-influenced Renaissance Revival-style skyscraper was built by Windham Brothers Construction Company. The Masons had no debt because the entire $658,000 construction cost was covered by contributions. The Prince Hall Free Masons contribute to the upkeep and maintenance of the Masonic Temple Building on an annual basis. The Masonic Temple Building, when completed, was the world’s largest and best-equipped state-of-the-art opulent building created and paid for by black people.
In addition to acting as the state headquarters for the Prince Hall Masons and the Order of the Eastern Star, the Temple Building operated for many years as the African-American community’s exclusive social and cultural center. This was one of the few buildings in the state that allowed African Americans to enter by the front doors, as opposed to the side or rear entries.
Black fraternal organizations, physicians, lawyers, dentists, and insurance brokers leased space throughout the building. The Masonic Temple, which housed the NAACP, the Southern Negro Youth Congress, the Right to Vote Club, and the Jefferson County Negro Democratic Youth League, would eventually play a role in the civil rights struggle.
The Prince Hall Masonic Temple is included in the National Register of Historic Places-listed 4th Avenue Historic District. The State of Alabama Department of Archives traces the second major wave of African-American businesses to this Colored Masonic Temple in Birmingham.
With the demise of Freemasonry in recent decades, a building that formerly played a significant role in the vibrant urban life of African Americans now faces practical obsolescence. The Prince Hall Big Lodge still owns the property, although the large auditorium has not been used for meetings since the early 2000s. Due to maintenance expenditures, the Masonic Temple Building, which had served the community for nearly 80 years, was closed in 2011.
Unfortunately, the structure has fallen into disrepair while lying inactive. Several windows remain boarded up, but the ruined structure’s future appears to be bright.
In January 2009, Main Street Birmingham hosted a workshop at this location to explore innovative growth concepts. Shortly after its designation as part of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, the Grand Lodge launched a campaign in 2017 to raise $10 to $15 million for the Temple’s restoration and expansion.
Plans for a potential expansion at the time included a multi-story parking deck with ground-floor retail to the west of the Temple. The Grand Lodge and Historic District Developers announced a $29 million mixed-use building renovation in 2019.
In addition, Urban Impact Inc. and the Birmingham Department of Innovation and Economic Opportunity contributed to the project in some way. It is structured in such a way as to qualify for tax credits for historic preservation, new markets, and opportunity zones. In April of 2022, the people responsible for developing the Historic District started the process of removing, documenting, and archiving the remaining things in the structure.
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