RALEIGH — Members of the state's two Masonic organizations -- one black, one white -- ended 138 years of mutual disregard Friday by signing a resolution recognizing each other as brother Masons.
The resolution, signed near the end of a nearly two-hour ceremony full of formality and speeches, ended a vestige of the segregation era, during which the two groups -- one white, the other black -- spent decades following the ancient tenets and teachings of freemasonry while each pretended the other didn't exist.
"Today's a historic day, because we're here to say we're brothers again," said David Cash, a Methodist minister from Kannapolis and grand master of the white group, the Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons of North Carolina.
Cash and his counterpart, Milton "Toby" Fitch Jr. of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of North Carolina and Its Jurisdictions, signed the document in the old House chambers of the State Capitol. They sat at a table where North Carolina's resolution to secede from the Union was signed 148 years ago.
Both Prince Hall and AF&AM Masonic groups carry on the traditions of a fraternity founded by building craftsmen in medieval Europe. The state's AF&AM organization was founded in 1787, though some of the individual lodges date back earlier. The state's Prince Hall group was founded in 1870.
Pomp and pride
Despite shared roots and goals, their members did not officially recognize each other as Masons until Friday.
"We are of the same family," said Dan Blue Jr., a Prince Hall Mason and state legislator from Raleigh. "This is an opportunity to complete a circle."
The ceremony, which had the feel of a peace treaty signing, was years in the making.
Members of the Prince Hall Masons unanimously passed a resolution recognizing their white counterparts as true Masons at their annual meeting in 2004. But a similar resolution failed several years in a row at AF&AM meetings, despite impassioned pleas from the group's leaders.
This year, in September, it passed 642-328, leading to Friday's gathering, which filled not only the old House chamber but also the old Senate, where the overflow watched on a big-screen TV.
Membership in the larger, white lodge has fallen from 73,000 at its peak in 1981 to less than 50,000, even as the state's population has soared. But Friday's ceremony was a reminder of the devotion of many Masons to the organization and the influential people it attracts. U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge led the pledge of allegiance, and former state Supreme Court justices Henry Frye and James Exum Jr. also spoke.
The resolution signed Friday does not merge the groups in any way, but it should lead to cooperation between them.
Cash, the AF&AM grand master, said representatives of the two groups are meeting to work out visitation issues and protocol. For example, he noted, Prince Hall Masons have a dress code, while the AF&AM does not.
"They are a little bit more formal," he said.
That formality was on display Friday, as Prince Hall members in particular wore colorful aprons around their waists and medallions around their necks. A color guard of Prince Hall Masons with epaulets on their shoulders, two rows of buttons down their chests and hats covered with white feathers lined the aisle of the old House chamber with raised swords as officers from the two organizations filed in.
Earlier this fall, Fitch and the Prince Hall Masons made Cash an honorary member. Friday, Cash returned the gesture, reading a framed resolution with a preacher's shout in his voice before the two men embraced before a shower of flashbulbs and a standing ovation.
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