Moose lodge rejects black in Hagerstown

February 17, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

HAGERSTOWN -- Members of the Hagerstown Moose Lodge, the organization's largest in North America, stunned the national leadership last night by overwhelmingly rejecting a black man's membership application.

On a 52-19 vote, members voted against accepting James Yates, a 43-year-old auto-preparation technician, into the social and public service organization. The lodge has 7,500 members, none of them black and few of whom attended last night's meeting to vote on the issue.

"It was not a favorable vote from our point of view," said Kurt Wehrmeister, a national spokesman for the 105-year-old organization based near Chicago. "Hagerstown has been a great concern to us over the last couple of years, and we are discussing this issue intensely."

The prospective member said he had a premonition that the vote was going against him.

"It's sad," Mr. Yates said. "When I was sitting here waiting this evening, I had the strangest feeling I didn't make it. "It's embarrassing. I wouldn't have [felt] so rejected if it had been a close vote."

His sponsor, Donald L. Edwards Sr., a 15-year member of the Moose lodge, said he was disappointed but declined to comment further.

The meeting was closed to the news media.

The issue of racism surfaced last month after Mr. Edwards filed a complaint alleging that Morris Jenkins Sr., the lodge governor, had discriminated against a prospective member because of race.

Mr. Edwards said that when he brought Mr. Yates, the prospective member and his longtime friend, to the lodge Christmas Eve, the lodge's governor approached the pair and told them Mr. Yates "would have to go."

A lodge administrator intervened and allowed Mr. Yates to remain. Mr. Edwards, a former doorman at the lodge, said he followed Moose lodge procedures in registering and identifying his guest.

The lodge governor later ordered the pair out of a ballroom, where a members-only function was concluding.

Mr. Jenkins declined to comment on the earlier incident and could not be reached after last night's vote.

In an unrelated case, the Hagerstown lodge is the defendant in a 1992 discrimination suit filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The suit alleges that four black men working for the ACLU were refused food service at the lodge because they were not members. White men, also working for the ACLU, were served and either were not asked to produce membership cards, or were encouraged to become members, the suit said.

Donald Ross, Moose supreme secretary, and Leonard Solfa, the Moose general counsel, met with Hagerstown lodge members before the vote last night in an attempt to educate them about Moose policy prohibiting race discrimination.

"We simply want to make that clear before [members] vote on this gentleman," said Mr. Wehrmeister, the national spokesman.

Mr. Wehrmeister said prospective members of a Moose lodge must show that they believe in a supreme being, must never have been convicted of a felony and must have never belonged to the Communist Party.

"We have some very objective requirements," Mr. Wehrmeister said. "But out of the many criteria by which prospective members should be judged, race cannot be one of them."

National Moose officials do not keep statistics on the number of members of other races, but Mr. Wehrmeister said he has seen members of every race "with my own eyes."

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