Alameda Freemasons Changes with the Times

This is not your father’s Masonic Lodge.


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Photo by Stephen Loewinsohn

Freemason Michael Wesley will happily show off the lodge.

 

If you’re thinking about The Da Vinci Code or getting stuck on secret handshakes, don’t. Freemasons have dwelled in Alameda since before the city was founded in 1853. And though urban myths and legends surrounding Freemasonry are “catnip for conspiracy theorists,” as National Geographic once called it, the reality is quite a bit tamer.

Community service is at the core of today’s Freemasonry—a fraternal club that goes back to the medieval guilds for craftsmen. Masons have traditionally founded and supported schools. That translates today into a backpack giveaway for local homeless and foster children, prizes for at-risk students in the Academy of Alameda, and scholarships for high school seniors. The lodge also sponsors Alameda Youth Basketball teams each year. The emphasis on education carries onward; members are strongly encouraged to read widely and regularly.

Alameda’s current Masonic Temple has stood on Alameda Avenue since 1926 with its doors not quite open to the public. It sits next door to its predecessor, which went up in 1891. The two buildings have housed several of Alameda’s Masonic lodges. One lodge helped build the city’s first school and the First Methodist Episcopal Church. Prominent members have included U.S. Congressmen Joseph R. and William Knowland, poet Joaquin Miller, and eight of Alameda’s mayors. Both buildings were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

Lodge Master Scott Colcord and Michael Wesley, a junior steward and member of the community involvement committee, recently shared some thoughts about Freemasonry at Blue Danube, the Park Street coffeehouse located in the older building. Then they showed off the current lodge: elegant halls with gorgeous woodwork, surprise sliding panels, vintage custom cast-brass doorknobs with Masonic emblems on them, and numerous traditional symbols and features. But it’s what goes on inside that is the heart of what the Masons do, Colcord said: “When we say ‘lodge,’ we mean the members, not just the building.”

Masons don’t advertise or recruit. They’re generally open to straight and gay men of all ethnicities, backgrounds, and religions. The only other restriction is that one must believe in a higher power. But make no mistake: For years there was a racial divide among the Masons, with some Southern lodges going so far as to embrace or endorse Ku Klux Klan activities and beliefs. African Americans formed their own lodges beginning in 1775, called Prince Hall lodges. This longtime schism between Prince Hall and Grand lodges was healed in the 1980s, and most lodges have embraced members of all races and creeds. The welcoming attitude of today’s Freemasons is what attracted Wesley.

“Each lodge has its own personality,” said Wesley, who is black. “We all have the same rules and beliefs, but the community culture absolutely has an effect on the culture of each Lodge. Segregation is real in the South, but the Bay Area is much more receptive to openness. My father was a Prince Hall Mason from Tuskegee, Alabama, and was ‘entered’ in 1959. I am not the first African American in the Island City Lodge; we have others—and Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs.”

“We have three lodges in Oakland under the Grand Lodge, plus the Scottish Rite and Alameda, and all have African-American and gay members,” he added. “This is part of the Bay Area culture. Unfortunately, the same areas where blacks, or gays, cannot be Masons, you will also not see any black or openly gay faces in the Rotary Club or Chamber of Commerce.”

Science and education are valued and encouraged, as shown in the emblem depicting a square and compass and the letter G for geometry, explained Wesley. The lodge encourages positive words and deeds and eschews politics and religion, aiming instead for a higher philosophy of learning and improvement, Colcord said.

A lodge open house for boys and girls 12 and over is slated for May 12, 6-8 p.m., with pizza and drinks included. DeMolay is the male youth group (members included Walt Disney, John Wayne, and Bill Clinton) associated with Freemasons. The International Order of Rainbow organization serves girls, whose famous members have included Sandra Day O’Connor. Both groups focus on leadership and service. The Masonic Lodge will hold open house lodge tours (open to everyone) on May 10 and 11 during the Park Street Spring Festival and July 25 and 26 during the Park Street Art & Wine Faire from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, visit www.Freemason.org.

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