Just before the end of 2016, Birmingham, Alabama’s historic Colored Masonic Temple, built by the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge, Free and Accepted Masons of Alabama between 1922-24, was declared by the National Parks Service as a part of the History Birmingham Civil Rights District, a wide area of the city that encompasses many significant buildings in the same general area. The seven-story building at the corner of 17th Street N and 4th Avenue was a major landmark in the 1960s as the longtime headquarters of the NAACP and their legal team, a shelter for the period’s famed Freedom Riders, as well as other businesses and facilities that were central to the city’s black community. All along with being the home to the MW Prince Hall Grand Lodge itself, Masonic lodges, appendant groups, and a 1,500 seat auditorium and ballroom. At the time it was built, according to their website, it was “At the time of its erection, the Temple Building was the largest and best equipped state-of-the-art luxurious building built by and paid for by Negroes in the entire world.”
When the Colored Masonic Temple opened in downtown Birmingham in 1924, it was one of the only places African-Americans could walk in the front door and not have to move to the back.
For decades, the seven-story, Renaissance Revival building housed black professionals, such as doctors, lawyers and accountants. At one time, it housed a barbershop, a jeweler, a billiards room, NAACP offices and much more. The structure, located in the 4th Avenue Business District, hosted social events and meetings. Legends like Duke Ellington and Count Basie regularly performed in the 1,500 seat auditorium and grand ballroom.
The Masonic Temple, commissioned by the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge, Free & Accepted Masons of Alabama, was a symbol of black prosperity in the segregated South. The building was also a major landmark in the Civil Rights Movement for housing the NAACP’s legal team and sheltering Freedom Riders in 1961. The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth also organized protests and sit-ins there.
Beginning in the early 1910s, The Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Alabama began raising money, a whopping $650,000, to build the massive structure.
Now, more than 90 years after the Masonic Temple opened its doors, Birmingham’s grand lodge needs to make magic again. The grand lodge is seeking to raise $10 million to $15 million to restore the building.
This time, though, the temple has the power of the National Park Service behind it.
The Colored Masonic Temple is part of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. The monument also includes the A.G. Gaston Motel, the neighboring Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the 16th Street Baptist Church, Bethel Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, St. Paul United Methodist Church and portions of the 4th Avenue Business District.
Corey Hawkins, who serves as the grand master of the grand lodge, said the group hired Community Concepts Agency to launch a capital fundraising campaign and is working with the city of Birmingham to secure other funding.
A GoFundMe campaign was launched on Saturday to help raise money for the first phase of the project. The goal is $50,000.
Birmingham City Councilor William Parker and other city officials worked with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to secure $600,000 in funding for asbestos and lead paint abatement.
“It sounds like a lot, but we do have faith that we can get some assistance,” Hawkins said, of the amount of money that needs to be raised.
“We are hoping that because of the importance of the temple to the Civil Rights Movement, especially during Jim Crow times, it was a place where African-Americans could go and walk in the front door and not have to go in the back, and sit anywhere they wanted to in the building. If they sat in the balcony, it was by choice. It wasn’t by demand.
“We are hoping that story gets out there and people remember … that the Masonic Temple played a major role,” he continued. “It was where a lot of the organizing was done (for the civil rights) marches and protests. It housed the NAACP, as a matter of fact the NAACP was the last to move out.”
Noted civil rights attorney Arthur Shores, of the NAACP had his office in the Masonic Temple, Hawkins added.
The temple was also a place where acclaimed black entertainers came to perform, he said.
Hawkins said the upcoming renovations will be the first for the temple. Despite that, he said the temple is in remarkable condition. The structure is sound, he said, but the building likely needs new plumbing and electrical wiring as well as extensive renovations to make the office and retail space more open and modern.
The grand lodge plans to restore the two-story grand ballroom and the office and retail space. In the adjoining parking lot, they plan to construct a parking garage with additional retail space on the ground floor.
Clark said the antique items left behind will be restored and displayed in the temple to celebrate the building “being a center for dentistry, surgery, medicine, music and law for blacks in the 1900s.”
Hawkins said he knows the fundraising and restoration won’t be easy, but he’s up for the challenge.
“We know with God anything is possible,” he said. “We are going to keep fighting.”
Hawkins said he looking forward to the day when the Masons and sister organization, the Eastern Stars, can all gather at the temple for a ribbon cutting.
He said he wants to have a big celebration to “commemorate our forefathers, the dream they had by building this building when they did, and us being able to hold on to it and secure its existence for another 90 years.”
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It should be noted that Alabama is one of the nine remaining states in the United States in which the predominantly white mainstream grand lodges and their predominantly black Prince Hall grand lodge counterparts still do not recognize each other.