Signs and symbols. Conspiracy theories. Secret societies. For the members of the Rising Sun Masonic Lodge in Severna Park, such associations are taken in stride.
“We’re not a secret society,” quipped Louis Cannon, the senior warden for the lodge. “We’re a society with secrets.”
Sporting the square-and-compass symbol on shirts and jackets, these men are not hiding their builder’s bona fides. Planted at the center of the famous masonic logo is a G. Some Internet searches say it stands for God. Others say it stands for a sacred geometry. Or maybe even the grand architect of the universe.
“I can’t tell you what the G stands for,” joked Cleveland McDowney, the master mason of Rising Sun Masonic Lodge. “That’s one of our secrets.”
Freemasonry traces its roots to the medieval guilds of European stonemasons. It’s also deeply tied to the history of the United States. A handful of the founding fathers were members. Complicating that history is the masonic lodge’s participation in the Ku Klux Klan, which persecuted Black Americans and the Nativist movement of the 1800s that violently opposed the immigration of Catholics to the U.S. For the Black men at the Rising Sun Masonic Lodge, these open secrets are approached with candor.
“The history of freemasonry mirrors the history of the United States,” said McDowney, the second-youngest master in the history of the Severna Park lodge. “On the other hand, masons were welcoming to African American men as far back as the American Revolution.”
Black freemasonry began on the American continent when a man named Prince Hall and 14 other free African American men petitioned a British garrison in Boston Harbor for formal membership and were accepted. After Britain lost the war and British troops no longer occupied American soil, Prince Hall conducted regular correspondence with the English Grand Lodge in London, growing the ranks of African Americans and eventually establishing what is called Prince Hall freemasonry.
“Prince Hall freemasonry is the oldest predominantly African American fraternity in the United States,” said treasurer Ralph Thomas. “There are two main branches of Prince Hall freemasonry: the independent state Prince Hall grand lodges, most of which are recognized by state grand lodges, and those under the jurisdiction of the national grand lodge.”
Today, almost 5,000 lodges trace their lineage to the first Prince Hall lodge in Massachusetts and there are almost 300,000 Prince Hall members nationwide. In 2023, no rules prohibit integrated lodges, however, Prince Hall freemasonry remains a masonic tradition.
“Our Severna Park lodge dates back to our charter on October 16, 1914,” said Master Mason Leon Porter. “The building was rebuilt in 1976, but we kept the cornerstone from the original structure dated August 24, 1919.”
Charitable works are part of the history of the Rising Sun Masonic Lodge. When the original Jones Elementary School was being built in the 1940s, students were offloaded to classroom space in the lodge. Partnering with local churches is part of the organization’s outreach. That would include Hope for the Living Ministries, whose pastor, the Rev. Jerome Howard Sr., rents space in the lodge for his congregation.
“We don’t generally publicize our charitable works. We stay humble,” said Cliff Hopkins, lodge secretary. “I joined the masons to be a part of a fraternal organization full of like-minded individuals that support the community.”
In contrast to an elks club, a moose lodge, or a rotary club, freemasonry does contain a spiritual element. According to McDowney, many of its traditions are based on scripture from the Old Testament.
“It’s a fraternity,” said Greg Daniels, past master of the Rising Sun Masonic Lodge. “We help men become better men.”
The men insist that freemasonry is not a religion despite its association with temples and altars, a moral code, vestments, feast days, and burial rites. Today, 51 grand masonic lodges and temples are spread across the U.S., one for each state and the District of Columbia, with a total membership of just under 2 million. The headquarters of the masonic order remains in the City of London. The Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Maryland is located at 1307 Eutaw Place in Baltimore.
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