Freemasonry and Racism
In the minds of many, Freemasonry is linked with elitism and secrecy yet a little research and asking simple questions produced information that belies the preconceived prejudices of many. Recent research carried out by the Curator of the Grand Lodge of Scotland Museum and Library, Robert Cooper, has established that the Masons blazed a trail in the field of race relations – a trail they pursue to this day.
Black men admitted to an Edinburgh Masonic Lodge in 1904
Cooper has discovered a remarkable photograph what shows that Freemasons in Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, were welcoming black men exactly 100 years ago. The photograph shows 10 black men, all members of the Williams & Walker Co, a touring vaudeville act after having been Initiated into Freemasonry in Lodge Waverley, No.597, on 2nd May 1904. They were subsequently Passed on 16th May and Raised on 1st June of that year. “The principals of Freemasonry”, said Cooper, “dictate that there can be no discrimination on the grounds of race and this is but one example.” The picture, and many others, also showing black Freemasons, are held by the Grand Lodge Museum in the Masons’ George Street headquarters. “Thank goodness for the camera” said Cooper. “Because Freemasonry per se is not interested in anyone’s religion, race, or politics our records contain no details as to the race etc. of the individuals concerned. These images show that Scottish Freemasonry has been admitting black men since, at least, the invention of photography.”
But further research revealed that admission of black men into Freemasonry had been taking place even earlier. “More than 100 years before slavery was officially abolished black men were being admitted into the fraternity,” explained Mark Tabbart, Curator of Fraternal Collections at the Museum of National Heritage in Lexington Massachusetts. “This is a story little known to non-Freemasons and it shows how egalitarian Freemasonry was and continues to be” said Tabbert.
Francis Cogliano. Lecturer in American history at the University of Edinburgh, said that inviting black men to join the Masons would have been a controversial move, given that British soldiers were figures of hate.
“In 1904 there was a lot of discrimination in Scotland, a totally obvious kind of discrimination, because that was the height of the British Empire. People of other races from Africa and the Indian subcontinent were regarded as servants and subjects,” he said.
“Most people are simply unaware of the egalitarian nature of Freemasonry,” said Cooper, “when one is aware that there are Scottish Lodges all over the world, including Africa and the
Indian subcontinent, all of them admitting natives of each country regardless of race it shows how ridiculous is any suggestion of racism.”