Barring of black by Moose lodge assailed as racist

February 18, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

HAGERSTOWN -- Civil rights leaders, politicians and residents here condemned as racist yesterday the Hagerstown Moose lodge's controversial decision to refuse membership to a black man.

Lodge members voted 52-19 Wednesday night to reject an application for membership by James Yates, 43, an auto-preparation technician. National leaders of the 105-year-old social and public service organization based near Chicago said they were shocked.

"I believe color was most definitely the reason," Mr. Yates said yesterday, adding that he was considering legal action against the lodge. "I feel like I've been stabbed," he said. "It's a shame. I don't want to make trouble for nobody, but I have a right to go where everybody else goes."

In Annapolis, Alderman Carl Snowden called on civil rights organizations, women's groups and others to pressure the Maryland General Assembly to pass a bill that would bar private clubs from discriminating because of race, gender or religion.

"We cannot sit back and watch a racist rejection by the Moose lodge and do nothing," Mr. Snowden said.

"The rejection of Mr. Yates on the basis of race is wrong, and the civil community has a responsibility to meet this rejection head-on."

National Moose spokesman Kurt Wehrmeister said Moose officials were discussing options concerning the Hagerstown lodge but declined to identify them.

Although relatively few members voted Wednesday night, the Moose organization in Hagerstown was described as the largest in North America with about 7,500 members.

Mr. Wehrmeister said Moose policy prohibits members from rejecting applicants because of race. National Moose leaders met with Hagerstown members and reaffirmed that policy before the vote.

David Krueger, the lodge administrator, said he thought the members' decision "was based on the publicity" that Mr. Yates and his sponsor, Donald L. Edwards Sr., had created.

Mr. Edwards' charges of racism against Maurice Jenkins, the lodge governor, attracted national attention. Mr. Jenkins was reported to have said during a Christmas Eve visit to the lodge that Mr. Yates, who was with Mr. Edwards at the time, "would have to go."

"The membership doesn't want anyone in here of that nature," Mr. Krueger said. "They like to keep [matters] to the lodge membership."

The Hagerstown lodge is not the only Maryland Moose chapter with no black members. A telephone survey of several Moose lodges turned up none with blacks in their membership. Officials at several others declined to discuss the matter.

Moose Lodge No. 537 in Edgemere has no blacks among its 3,700 members and none inquiring about joining, said spokesman Paul Sojka Sr.

Stan McGready, administrator of Moose Lodge No. 1952 in Forest Hill, said there were no minorities in his 613-member chapter but that "we have no prejudice against minorities." Mr. McGready has been a Moose member for 19 years.

Annapolis Moose Lodge 296 has no blacks among its approximately 600 members, said its governor, Johnny Barber, who added in response to a question that a black applicant would be welcome.

The treasurer of Pasadena Moose Lodge No. 2389, George Farrell, said he could not speak for the chapter but noted that "we have some Spanish and Chinese members here. If [Mr. Yates] met the criteria, he should have been allowed in as long as he wasn't a convicted felon or a Communist."

The Moose state secretary, Benjamin Whitmer, said he was unable to say whether any Maryland lodge had a black member. "We don't keep any records of any race, religion or color," he said. "I've seen them [blacks] at the international conventions."

Among those condemning the Hagerstown lodge's action were the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith and the Baltimore Jewish Council.

"Discrimination by private clubs on the basis of race, religion or gender reinforces and lends legitimacy to other kinds of irrational bigotry," said Teri Gross, association director of the Anti-Defamation League's Washington regional office.

Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said, "The council has always abhorred and condemned all forms of racism, and if the facts in this case bear out that the applicant was barred simply because he was an African-American, then this kind of action has no place in our country and in the state of Maryland."

Mr. Snowden said private clubs that discriminate because of race, gender or religion would face revocation of liquor licenses and challenges to their tax-exempt status under Senate Bill 560, which is before the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee.

The lodge's decision didn't surprise some Hagerstown residents.

"It shows you what kind of town we have here," said Noble Kay, a former businessman who now supervises a home for the mentally retarded. "This is a town that wants to hold on to traditions that go back to the 1800s. It doesn't want to make way for the 1990s."

Mr. Kay, who is black, said racism played a role in his decision to close a downtown restaurant he owned last year. He declined to elaborate, but a former employee, Tammy Hart, said other downtown businesses were uncomfortable with a black-owned business.

Ms. Hart said some in the community are uncomfortable not only with other races, but with other religions or "whatever they feel will be of interest in fighting against you."

"I think it's terrible that something like this has happened," said John Payne, a pastor and vendor who operates a hot dog stand in downtown Hagerstown. "It's 1994. It's time to wake up."

Mr. Edwards, an auto technician who lives in Hagerstown, said he has received phone calls in which his life has been threatened since the controversy began but that he remains steadfast in his support of Mr. Yates.

"Whether he decides to fight or call it quits, I will back him up 100 percent," Mr. Edwards said.

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