Hagerstown Moose to vote on 1st black

February 13, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

HAGERSTOWN -- Members of the Hagerstown Moose lodge, the largest in North America, are to vote Wednesday on whether to admit the lodge's first black member, possibly resolving a controversy that began on Christmas Eve.

Events precipitating the vote have pitted one member against the lodge's governor and are tinged with allegations of racism that have drawn not only local attention, but the attention of the national leadership of the Loyal Order of Moose.

Top Moose leaders are scheduled to be present Wednesday to instruct members on avoiding discrimination, said Kurt Wehrmeister, a spokesman for the 105-year-old social and public-service organization, which is based near Chicago.

"We require that our lodges be selective in choosing their members," Mr. Wehrmeister said. "We don't just offer blanket solicitations for membership. We do have criteria, but one of those criteria cannot be race."

The issue came to light in Hagerstown on Christmas Eve, when member Donald L. Edwards Sr. brought a longtime friend and prospective member, James Yates, to the lodge for a drink and a tour of the facilities. Mr. Edwards said he followed lodge procedures in registering and identifying his guest.

Shortly afterward, while Mr. Edwards and Mr. Yates were in the bar and dining area, lodge Governor Maurice Jenkins Sr. approached the pair and told them Mr. Yates "would have to go," Mr. Edwards said.

A lodge administrator intervened and allowed Mr. Yates to stay.

Later, Mr. Jenkins ordered the pair out of a ballroom, where a members-only function was concluding.

"It really surprised me," said Mr. Edwards, a 15-year member of the Hagerstown lodge. "I knew there were no black members, but I didn't think there would be problems. If I had taken a white man in as my guest, there wouldn't have been no problems."

Mr. Jenkins yesterday declined to comment.

Mr. Edwards filed a complaint with the local lodge and Moose International, alleging that Mr. Jenkins discriminated against his friend because of race. The complaint asks for a formal apology and for Mr. Jenkins' removal as lodge governor.

That complaint, being investigated by the international, isn't the lodge's first brush with charges of racism.

In November 1992, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland sued the lodge for discrimination after four black men were not served food at the lodge because they were not members. White men, also working for the ACLU, were served and either not asked to produce membership cards, or were encouraged to become members.

The suit is pending in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

Mr. Yates, 43, an auto-prep technician, will be among about 15 men whose memberships will be considered Wednesday. The 7,500-member lodge has no black members.

The vote was scheduled last month, but was postponed so officers from Moose headquarters could meet with Hagerstown members to make clear that consideration of prospective members cannot be done on the basis of race.

Mr. Wehrmeister said it's rare for officers from headquarters to "become involved to this degree" in lodge membership votes. The Moose has members "of every race as far as I know, only because I've seen members of every race with my own eyes. We don't keep statistics."

But Moose International was able to say it has 1.25 million male members and 535,000 female members (in separate components) in the United States, Canada and Great Britain.

"We don't ask for a member's race on any application or any

form. We view the color of skin or race or national origin of a member as irrelevant," Mr. Wehrmeister said. "We want people of good moral character who believe in what we do and what we seek to contribute."

Those are factors that appealed to Mr. Yates, who enjoys helping children and the disadvantaged. He is a member of the Hagerstown Fire Police and the Funkstown and Antietam fire companies.

"I like what they do for children," Mr. Yates said, noting the Moose's school for children of Moose families in need. "I like any organization that helps children. I was familiar with the Moose. I never looked at it as an all-white organization."

Mr. Yates said he wasn't seeking to break racial barriers, but he isn't willing to back away either.

"I've been through it before," Mr. Yates said. "I've had enough in my time -- in schools, on the streets and it's been bad. [Racism] is still around in certain generations."

He said he was the first black to join the Funkstown Fire Co., a move that initially gave him pause. He said he was welcomed by the fire company and has made good friends there.

"I try to get along with everybody," Mr. Yates said. "If someone don't like me, they don't like me. I don't get all bothered."

Mr. Edwards, a Hagerstown auto technician, is adamant in his support of Mr. Yates.

"This is the '90s -- when will the [nonsense] stop?" Mr. Edwards said. "I've known Jimmy since 1978. I know Jimmy would give me the shirt off his back if I needed it. He's that kind of guy."

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