I'm going to be a blatant fanboy with this post about a Brother each and every one of you needs to know.
WB E. Oscar Alleyne made a whirlwind trip to Oslo, Norway, Rochester, NY, and then Indianapolis earlier this week - an astonishing feat that is frankly exhausting to even contemplate for most of us. Despite little sleep over those several days (and having to be back in New York by 9AM for a meeting on Wednesday morning), he gave a remarkable presentation at Lodge Vitruvian No. 767 on Tuesday night (above). His topic was Clandestine Freemasonry.
I will not exaggerate: Oscar's presentation needs to be heard far and wide, in lodges, districts, and grand lodges. Far more important, it should be seen and heard at the Conference of Grand Masters in North America, AND the Conference of Grand Masters Prince Hall Masons, no matter how uncomfortable the subject may be to some. And I mean that with all sincerity and insistency. If you are reading this and are involved in the programming for either of those national conferences, I strongly urge you to put him on the program next February for all attendees.
"Clandestine Freemasonry" is probably one of the most misunderstood terms we casually sling around in the Masonic world, and in many corners, it results in a highly charged confrontation. We mention it obliquely in our obligation, and then never officially refer to it, or even define it, ever again. As Oscar's presentation made evident Tuesday night, while it is overwhelmingly an artifact in the African-American community, it is by no means just isolated there (he showed a list of no fewer than 70 such groups in the US that are predominantly made up of caucasian or Hispanic men).
What makes his talk of such importance to us all is multi-layered. He explains the breadth and ancestry of the situation starting with the initiation of Prince Hall and his 14 compatriots and the issuing of a regular charter to them by the premiere Grand Lodge of England, up through the various schisms within that sphere, their National Compact experiment and breakaway groups, and finally what has become the many self-created national, state, and local organizations and individual, independent lodges. So, for those Masons who know little or nothing about this world, he goes from zero to 60 in less than an hour.
But he also shows how all of this is extremely important to each of us. The Internet in particular has made it all too easy for these clandestine groups to sign on to LegalZoom, file a proper notice of incorporation with the Secretary of State's office with the correct paperwork, pick up a copy of Duncan's at the bookstore, buy a blank charter and a stack of very impressive grand officer aprons and jewels from Macoy's or an online Pakistani embroidery company, pick out dazzling Masonic rings, start a lavish website, and print out posters inviting folks to come on down to the rented Masonic lodge (once owned by a legitimate lodge or even grand lodge, but sold years ago) on Saturday with their $1000 check and be a 33° Mason that night. They'll have a dues card, and they'll have all of the right words and signs. (Just as an aside, what makes their process any different from one of our own One Day Classes that take them "from sidewalk to Shrine" in a dozen hours, I'm not entirely certain. But I digress.)
Only after those men try to interact with regular, recognized Masons do they discover, too late, that no, they cannot visit lodges all over the world (or town), and their dues card won't really get them out of jail.
Many of these groups often engage in severe hazing practices, such as punching blindfolded candidates, branding, actual blood letting, and far worse. Petitions that contain releases to hold the organization harmless from liability if the candidate is injured are common. Their members frequently tell of fees, dues, insurance premiums and fines costing thousands of dollars a year. When they encounter mainstream and PHA lodge members and are rebuffed, or if they complain about the hazing, they are told that "those regular guys" will do a whole lot worse to them if they try to join us instead.
One of the largest, the International Free and Accepted Modern Masons, Inc., is principally an extremely successful money-making scheme (as are many others). They are frequently depicted as wearing a Masonic apron along with a Shrine fez. The Internationals pay their members a bounty for bringing in new recruits and require payment into what is a massive pyramid scheme. Like many of the larger clandestine groups, they have a board of directors and officers like President and CEO, instead of grand lodge line officers and trustees. They have a large and active Eastern Star "Department" and youth groups. They do often operate very visible charities in some communities.
After numerous lawsuits, they were forced to change their trademark from a standard S&C by adding a key underneath it. It is not uncommon for their members (and many other clandestine "Masons") to shake hands with an unsuspecting regular Mason while "trying" him with a ritual question, then snatch the Masonic ring from his finger, telling him he's "not worthy."
How pervasive is this problem for us all, ultimately? Well, the Master of Vitruvian went to the Indianapolis airport to pick up Oscar Tuesday, and because they didn't know each other, he wore a ball cap with a S&C on it. Before Oscar arrived, two black men walked up to him and started openly displaying due guards and signs at him, giving him the grip. For a moment, he thought perhaps Oscar had sent them ahead just to fool with him. But no, when he asked their affiliation, it was an organization he had never heard of.
Oscar fully understands this situation. He spent 14 years as an active member of a clandestine New York "grand lodge," a town (and state) that is filled with these groups. It was only when he started asking questions and investigating that he found out just what he had joined. Oscar is not some bumpkin, by anyone's metric. He just simply didn't know, and no one ever explained it, in person, in lodge, or online. And there are thousands of men just like him all over the country. It is a vast underground culture that uses our symbols, our literature, our rituals, and our reputation, to make money and defraud unsuspecting men.
One of the principal reasons they have gotten away with it is our historic institutionalized racism. For over two centuries, state grand lodges openly said black men couldn't be Masons at all (that whole "freeborn" business made it easy to pervert the meaning). And even if they let it slip that black men could be Masons, well, that Prince Hall lodge downtown was where they had to go. Likewise, PHA lodges often told white men looking for Masonic membership to go elsewhere.
I'm not flogging anyone over the past, but the future starts right now. Even in the 42 US jurisdictions that share recognition with their PHA counterparts, there is a prevailing attitude on the part of BOTH organizations that if you are a "man of color," the Prince Hall world is really their "proper" destination. Lodges on both sides have not largely desegregated, and joint recognition has in its own way been harmful by simply enforcing our separation, generally unknowingly and with the best of intentions, and most often out of our own confusion and discomfort in addressing the complex question of race in this country.
As Oscar points out, the African-American clandestine groups thrive, in part, by turning our own past history on its ear now. When their members are turned away by a local mainstream lodge or rebuffed by regular Masons on Facebook and elsewhere, it must be because of "racism," not their lack of regularity, and the "I told you not to go there" admonitions fall trippingly from the tongue. Their Masters and Grand Masters will ask their members, "If you're drowning and give a distress call, will those so-called Masons come and save you? If you are broken down by the side of the road and give a sign, will they stop for you?" But what is more concerning are the outward signs of this phenomenon.
In New York City, it is common for literally a dozen or more of the phony Masonic groups to march in parades, proudly sporting their flashy regalia, and carrying banners to draw in potential members. They sometimes operate charities that are highly regarded in the community.
In a photo (right) released by his attorney when he was accused of complicity in Michael Jackson's death, Doctor Conrad Murray was wearing a grand lodge jewel that proclaimed him to be the "Grand Medical Director" to prove he was somehow "connected" and a "high-ranking Mason" to the outside world. His Masonic background was explored by news sites like Fox and People Magazine. Never mind that he held that position in a phony "grand lodge" that solely encompassed the metropolitan area of Houston, Texas. Such distinctions are ignored or simply never spotted or known by non-Masons (and even by many Masons themselves). The Jackson family alleged Murray was part of a Masonic cabal that controlled the music business who had ordered Jackson's murder, and the jewel in the picture "proved" that. Because many hip hop stars refer to Masonic symbolism or use it in their stage shows and album artwork, it becomes harder to just shrug off this nonsense.
Starting in 2015, a story hit the news from southern California about the arrest of three people in connection with impersonating law enforcement officers, and proclaiming themselves to be part of a "Masonic Police Department." In their trial appearance (below) that was covered by the Associated Press and other news outlets, "Absolute Supreme Sovereign Grandmaster" David Inkk Henry, Brandon Kiel, and Tonette Hayes proudly sported their Masonic regalia. Hayes wore a jeweled Shrine pin and a minister's collar, while Kiel and Henry wore their grand officer collars.
In a bizarre video released by Hayes around the same time (that has since disappeared from YouTube), he defended his activities from the criticism by other Masons and said that anyone who did not understand his actions needed to consult their own grand master for clarification.
In neither case did reporters, prosecuting attorneys, or law enforcement contact the regular, recognized grand lodges of their states for information, or even to check their claims of association. They don't largely because Freemasons are all thought to be just part of just one, same, big, happy, secretive, global treehouse. Regularity and recognition are arcane and meaningless to everyone but us.
Starting in the 1980s and 90s, the late historian and author Joseph A. Walkes, Jr. helped to establish the Phylaxis Society to specifically research issues and history surrounding Prince Hall Freemasonry. At that time, much misinformation and even less authentic research material existed about their unique and historic branch of US Freemasonry, and the Phylaxis Society under Walkes' early leadership provided a haven for Masonic scholarship.
As part of their mission, they embarked on a daunting task that was astonishing in an age before computerized, online public records. They went state by state, and often into municipalities, and researched the incorporation records for what became the Joseph A. Walkes, Jr. Commission on Bogus Masonic Practices to identify the hundreds of phony organizations in the US claiming to be Masonic.
The list is now ten years out of date, and hasn't kept up with the most recent proliferation of these instant lodges and grand lodges, but it is a good starting point for anyone wanting to get a taste of just how massive the problem really is. Check your own state. Illinois and New York have in the several hundreds, and there are thousands nationwide.
At the very least, EVERY SINGLE regular, recognized grand lodge in the U.S. should have a menu item on its website defining "clandestine" Freemasonry (and acknowledging its existence in the first place), explaining why regularity is important for potential petitioners, AND if a man is ALREADY a member of a clandestine group, how he can join a regular, recognized one. If your grand lodge has a specific process for such men (retaking the obligations of all three degrees, a simple "healing" by the Grand Master, a committee hearing with the candidate, or even completely starting from scratch and retaking the degrees completely - or some other option), your website should openly spell it out. We need to address the problem, not ignore it, because this is a much larger and more widespread phenomenon than most of us understand - more such organizations pop up every week, in every state. Members of these groups CAN be brought into our fraternity family, and we make a big mistake by not telling them how. And if your grand lodge does NOT have a process, you should formulate one.
If you happen to be in one of the nine PHA jurisdictions left that is not recognized by its mainstream counterpart, you STILL need to address this problem - maybe even more than everyone else, because these groups use the historical racism of the past to flourish in your own backyards. The lack of joint recognition only bolsters their arguments, and they cannot be as easily refuted, solely becuase of the current situation there. If for no other reason, BOTH of the regular grand lodges in each of those states need to stop ignoring each other, finally leave the old bigotry and distrust in the past where it belongs, and find common ground.
I'll wrap this up, but I strongly urge all regular, recognized jurisdictions to invite Oscar, and more important, to invite members of their state or PHA counterparts, as well as the general public. Cast a wide net and make special attempts to encourage attendees from these clandestine groups to attend, as well. It can open their eyes, as Oscar's own eyes were opened. Moreover, consider the very important demographic he represents: he is young, African-American, extremely educated (a doctor of epidemiology in New York) and well traveled, he was once a member of a clandestine Masonic lodge himself, and is now extremely active and respected in the Grand Lodge of New York. He has walked a path that many of these men have themselves. He will appeal to the very men we seek in our own lodges, and who most of our grand officers freely admit they do not fully understand. Oscar does.
I'm not his shill or booking agent. I get nothing by promoting his message. But please consider adding him to your upcoming Masonic program. It's vital to us all to pay attention to his message and to fully understand an issue we are all obligated to fight.