Universal Lodge No. 14, home to black Freemasons, is being considered for historic landmark status

Standing on brotherhood

February 21, 2007|By Nia-Malika Henderson | Nia-Malika Henderson,sun reporter

At Universal Lodge No. 14, prominent black men of Annapolis set about making brotherhood.

Men like former Mayor John T. Chambers Jr. and William Bishop, the first black physician at the former Anne Arundel General Hospital, gathered to uplift the community. At one point, they numbered 110 members.

While the chapter - among the oldest in Maryland - has been around since 1865, its home since 1940 has been a plain, two-story brick building at 64 Clay St.

Yesterday, a state panel recommended the lodge be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building, which dates to 1880, could be on the registry as early as this summer.

"I am proud and honored. This is about the recognition and preservation of the African-American presence in that area and the contributions its members have made," said Jeffrey Henderson, a lodge member who spearheaded the effort. "We will preserve that legacy."

Freemasonry dates to the 1700s, when the first Grand Lodge was formed in London. The fraternal organization's members share a guiding moral code centered on commitment to brotherhood and community. Its rituals are secret.

Black men affiliated with the Naval Academy and stationed in Newport, R.I., organized the Annapolis chapter in the waning months of the Civil War. After the war, they returned to Annapolis and expanded the lodge.

In 1871, members assisted in the aftermath of Great Chicago Fire.

And, according to meeting minutes from the early 1900s, the local Masons recognized the need for a health care facility that did not exclude blacks. Later, lodge member Theodore Johnson pushed for and helped establish a community health center in Parole.

In 1940, members put down a $1,000 deposit toward the $1,500 purchase price of the current building. Over the next three years, they paid off the rest.

Major renovations were completed in 1956, paid for with an $8,000 bank loan and $8,000 raised from an Annapolis-to-Eastern Shore cruise operated by the brotherhood.

On the second floor, outside the room where formal meetings are held, a gallery of black-and-white photos line the wall, detailing the lodge's past leadership. Prominent men are decked out in top hats, white gloves, aprons and symbolic charms around their necks.

"They were all upright men who provided for their families, gave to the churches and gave to the lodge," said Henderson, who became a Mason in December 1979.

There are now 37 members, almost double the number six years ago.

Membership declined as members died, moved away from the community, and as eligible men chose to join other civic organizations. The recent growth means that building upkeep is a priority again. Members recently installed new doors and carpet, and upgraded the electrical system.

Melvin M. Brown Sr., the group's leader, known as the "worshipful master," joined five years ago as part of the wave of "young blood" that is rejuvenating the lodge. He grew up sensing the mystery and prestige associated with being a Mason.

"As a kid, it was a secret thing, and they wouldn't tell you anything," he said. "But everything was always in sync, and they always had a higher standard."

Peter E. Kurtz of the Maryland Historical Trust helped evaluate the history of the building and its membership and submitted the application to the Governor's Consulting Committee.

A listing on the National Register means the lodge, with its aging roof, will be able to reach an even higher standard, because the group will be eligible for state and federal funding for renovation projects.

Moreover, it will mean the lodge, which has long held Christmas and Thanksgiving giveaways and mentored neighborhood kids, will have a permanent place in the community.

"At one point, people thought it was an abandoned building. Now they see active brothers," said Brown. "But if Clay Street is being rejuvenated or commercialized, they couldn't say they needed this building or come and change it, and we will have firm footing."

Henderson said the building will remain a symbol of "manly leadership coming from the community."

"It will inspire the men to not walk the wrong path," he said.

nia.henderson@baltsun.com

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