Saturday, May 6, 2006

Masonic lodge's unusual, long history -- Suisun City group made up mostly of black members

From Daily Republic
By Ian Thompson

SUISUN CITY - The imposing two-story brick building with its stained-glass windows stands over Main Street as a 120-year-old curiosity, one of the few buildings in Northern California designed specifically as a Masonic hall.

The Masonic lodge it shelters, the Stanley Beverly Lodge No. 108 of the Prince Hall Masons, announces itself only with a marble plaque stating when it was founded.

But there is nothing secretive about the primarily African-American Masonic lodge that calls Suisun City's Old Town home and whose roots extend all the way back to Revolutionary War Boston.

"There are no secrets in Masonry, but there are things that only Masons should know," said Mason Larry Hill, alluding to such things as the password required to enter a Masonic meeting.
That openness ranges from the community projects the Masons undertake to a willingness to talk abut Masonry to anyone interested.

"It is different from when my dad was a Mason," Hill said of the time when Masons simply went around helping their community quietly. "Now we are more visible and let people know we are here.""We are open to any member, but we are primarily African-American," longtime member Fred Young said.

Many years ago, black Masons weren't welcome in primarily white lodges, but now members from different lodges visit more frequently, Hill and Young said.

Masonry is all about fellowship and is based on the principles set down in the Bible, members said.

They denied they are a religion and pointed out people of every religion belong to the lodges, with the only proviso being a belief in a supreme being.

"It has helped me in dealing with life," Young said. "It allowed me to meet people from all over the world who share a common belief in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man."

"It just makes people better," he added. "Color doesn't have to be a factor."

Most of the members are second- or third-generation Masons such as Young, whose father was a Mason while stationed on Okinawa.

"I grew up in the lodge," he said.

He joined in April 1968 while serving as an Air Force loadmaster on C-130 Hercules transports.
Hill has been a Mason since 1977 and was inspired to join the fraternity because his father was also a Mason.

"I just like doing this," Hill said. "If you like helping people and your community, you will enjoy it. You can do more as a group than as an individual."

The building was erected in 1888 and its ground floor has housed everything from pool hall to an auto parts store.

The two-story Gothic Revival building is considered one of the few Masonic lodges in Northern California that was built expressly for use as a Masonic lodge - it originally housed Lodge No. 55, Free and Accepted Masons before that lodge moved to new quarters in Fairfield.

While stationed at Travis Air Force Base, Young went to halls in the Sacramento and the Bay Area but then noticed this area had a growing number of Masons.

"We had enough people so we formed in 1973," Young said.

The Stanley Beverly Lodge held its first meetings in the veterans hall a couple of blocks up Main Street in 1973.

The group was only 25 strong then and has grown to a little more than 100 now with members scattered among Suisun City, Fairfield, Travis AFB and Vacaville.

Almost all of the original 25 were active-duty military members. Only 20 of the present 109 lodge members are in the military, but many others such as Hill and Young are retired military.
"You find a lot of Masons in the military," Hill said.

Not long after forming, they heard the Masonic Hall was being used for storage and approached the owner of the building, who was a member of the Masonic Hall that relocated to Fairfield.

"The guy said he would sell it and we bought it in 1974," member Young said.

The lodge meets twice a month, sponsors a Little League team, has a scholarship program and offers youth activities for the members' families. Members also work as tutors at local schools.

The first meetings of the month are business meetings while the second meetings are devoted to study and presentations on masonry.

They also respond to requests from community groups, schools and young people asking for sponsorships or donations for various community causes, Hill said. The group plans to expand community involvement with more programs to help youth.

Young and Hill say the Stanley Beverly Lodge is no different from the Masonic group that meets in Fairfield. Six years ago, the leaders of the two groups met and established visitation rights that allow each to attend the others' meetings.

Suisun City is now one of 5,000 lodges and 47 grand lodges with an estimated 300,000 Masons who can trace their lineage to the Prince Hall Grand lodge.

The Stanley Beverly Masons are still working to bring the historic building "back up to what a Masonic hall should look like," Young said.

The stained-glass windows overlooking Main Street have been restored already and redoing the floor is next on the agenda.

"We are trying to bring it up to date," Hill said of the ongoing efforts.

Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or at

Masonry goes back to the medieval stonemason guilds of Europe.

The history of the Prince Hall Masons goes back to March 1775 when Prince Hall and 14 other African-Americans were made Masons in a Masonic Lodge attached to a British regiment stationed in Boston.

When the British left, the British masons left behind a permit allowing the black Masons to continue meeting as a lodge. In July 1776, the African Lodge was formed.

By the time Hall died in 1807, there were several lodges established on the East Coast and in honor of Hall, the Boston lodge's name was changed the Prince Hall Grand Lodge.

Hall, who was a leatherworker and later a minister, is now recognized as the father of black masonry in America.

"It is the only grand lodge to still have its original charter from England," said Fred Young, a Stanley Beverly Lodge No. 108 member.

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