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Nathaniel Hunter, Grand Master of the Prince Hall Masons of Nebraska

A History of the Prince Hall Masons in Omaha

Integral to the founding of the city of Omaha, Black people have been routinely left out of the social and fraternal organizations which influence, guide, and often lead the entire city. For generations, African American leaders took it upon themselves to build the social capital and secure the neighborly goodwill they wanted in order to improve life, neighborhoods, the city, and the nation. This is the history of one of Omaha’s African American social organizations called the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge (MWPHGL), referred to as the Black Masons, and their past in Omaha.

National History of Prince Hall Masons

These are photos of the 1915 Druid Hall located at N. 24th and Ames Ave. in North Omaha. It has been home to the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Nebraska Prince Hall Masons since 1968, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2015. Pics courtesy of Freddie Clopton, past Grandmaster.

Before the Revolutionary War, a group of free Black men in Boston petitioned to join a Masons lodge and were denied because of their race. Supposedly championing freedom, equality and peace, the mainstream Masons were white supremacists who denied Black liberty. In 1775 the Black men, led by Prince Hall (c1735-1807), applied to an Irish Masons hall and were accepted. Establishing African Lodge No. 1, Prince Hall was elected leader of the new hall. Turning to the Masons of England for full membership, which was denied to them otherwise, Prince Hall became a founder of African Lodge No. 1 in 1784.

The organization grew from there, but still faced segregation by white Masons, and in 1827 declared itself independent. Over the years, the organization grew and changed while adhering closely to the tenets of Masonry.

Called Prince Hall Masonry, there are two branches of Black Masons. According to the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Nebraska website, today Prince Hall Masons “enjoy full Fraternal recognition with our brothers of the Grand Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of Nebraska.” The Masons are a male-only organization, with a female auxiliary called the Order of the Eastern Star (OES) that is very active in Omaha.

The Early Decades of Black Masonry in Omaha

This is the logo of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Nebraska.
This is the logo of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Nebraska.

Organizations like the Prince Hall Masons are called “benevolent, charitable, and fraternal organizations.” In Omaha, Black Masons have included politicians, teachers, lawyers, pastors, businessmen, factory workers, laborers, and others. Prince Hall Masons are the oldest fraternal organization in Omaha for African Americans, and can be said to have had the greatest impact on the community over the decades.

From the years of 1869 to 1919, Prince Hall Masons were in their founding era in Omaha. All members were treated as equals inside the lodge, no matter what job they did outside. Everyone paid lodge dues that were used to help members in times of illness or injury. Early on, this money also paid widows and dependent children if members died young. There were funeral rites administered for every member who requested, too, and several pastors have been members.

There is not agreement on when the Prince Hall Masons were established in Omaha. According to an account from 1891, Prince Hall Masons were first established in Omaha in 1866. A different article said that the Nebraska Prince Hall Lodge was organized in 1918 and traced its charter to 1874. Research published in 1997 found the oldest rosters of Masons in Omaha appeared in 1899. However, the same report suggested the earliest lodges in the city were established in the 1870s and 1880s.

The Omaha newspapers of the 1880s, including the Bee, the Herald, and the World, included several reports of the activities of Prince Hall Masons in the city. There were regular short columns on the picnics, processionals, and other events held in the Near North Side and downtown. In 1883, one of the most popular events in the city was the funeral of Richard Curry (1846-1883). Curry was a Buffalo Soldier and Civil War veteran who reportedly served as the First Master of the Prince Hall Masons of Nebraska in 1868. His funeral was held with full Masonic rites.

The Enterprise, a Black-owned newspaper published in Omaha from 1893 to 1920, was labelled “The official organ of the M.W. Grand Lodge A.F. & A.M. of the State of Missouri and its Jurisdiction,” which included Omaha. The paper was pro-Black power and was helmed by Black Masons including Thomas Mahammitt (1862-1950).

Interestingly, during this era there were also multiple accounts of “the colored Masons attending in a body” at funerals of African Americans in the city. In the 1890s, the Omaha Bee reported on several Black Mason celebrations of St. John’s Day, an annual celebration held on June 24. Detailing the start of the event, an account from 1892 said, “Several coach loads of colored Masons with their ladies came down from Omaha on the 11 o’clock train. They were met at the depot by the members of the local lodges, all in uniforms, and with two brass bands the procession marched through the principal streets of the city, making a credible appearance… This evening the Omaha knights gave an exhibition drill at the Park Theater [in Lincoln].” This gives a sense of the impression the organization left on white Omaha.

In 1896, Prince Hall lodges in Omaha included…

All of these chapters met at Hartman’s Hall on 14th and Dodge Streets. There were also OES chapters, including…

An 1891 article in the World-Herald said that Dr. Matthew Ricketts, the leader of Black Masons in Omaha, secured the city a “grand convocation” of Masons from across the Midwest with 500 participants. Events included gatherings at Hartman’s Hall; a grand parade and competitive drill meet; and the “grand consummation of the Masonic celebrations” at the Colosseum on North 20th Street. According to the newspaper, it was the 24th anniversary of the establishment of Black Masons in Omaha.

There were many other convocations in Omaha over the succeeding years, including one in 1912 that included attendees from Missouri, Montana, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, and Nebraska. Kansas and Iowa lodges met with Nebraskans in Omaha, too. These events were important enough to draw speakers from the highest political ranks in the state several times, including the governor and the mayor of Omaha, state senators and a House Representative.

That same year, a special committee recommended that the Grand Lodge start an Order of the Eastern Star lodge in Nebraska, with “its legality from the grand chapter in Ohio.”

Tracking the number of Prince Hall Masons in Omaha throughout the years is difficult. There is no sense of how many members there were before 1900. One study found a roster from an Omaha lodge that served 23 middle-class members in the 1890s. A nationwide depression in the 1890s surely shrank the numbers a lot. Between 1908 and 1920, the membership shot up from 39 to 513, with the Great Migration playing a large factor in the increase. A 1997 study declared Nebraska’s Black Masons have been a multi-class institution since at least 1908, with a range of skin tones, economic status, and home ownership statuses among its members.

The organization hasn’t been without conflict. In 1907, Jimmy Jewell Sr., the eventual proprietor of the Jewell Building and Dreamland Hall, sued the Excelsior Lodge #110 for not paying his sick benefits. Jewell said they weren’t paying him because of internal politics, but I couldn’t find the outcome of the case.

By 1913, the Damascus Temple and the Knights of the Consistory were closed, and two new lodges were opened:

The Prince Hall Masons have been involved directly in politics, education, and religion in many ways since the beginning. For instance, in 1911 they conducted “the appropriate Masonic ceremonies” at the newly remodeled St. John AME Church located at North 18th and Webster Streets. They also conduct Masonic rites at funerals in churches, and there have been many members who were ministers.

In 1919, the Omaha Monitor announced that an African American organization, the King Solomon’s Most Worthy Grand Lodge and Grand Court, Kansas jurisdiction, York Right Masons was meeting in Omaha at the U.B.F. Hall at North 24th and Parker Streets. The paper said more than 100 people would attend “the first time a Colored Masonic grand lodge has met in Omaha…”

By 1920, with the end of World War I in 1918 and the lynching of Will Brown in Omaha in 1919, African Americans were ready to consolidate different Black Masons organizations in Nebraska.

Growing Through the Wars

Prince Hall Masons Building, N. 26th and Blondo Street, North Omaha, Nebraska
The Prince Hall Masons building at North 26th and Blondo was bought in 1929 when Nathaniel Hunter was the leader. Pic courtesy of the Durham Museum.

Immediately World War I, Prince Hall Masons soared in membership in Omaha. More African American men looked for the benefits of belonging and wanted to contribute to the leadership and mobility of Omaha’s Black community. However, the continued presence of “clandestine” Black Mason organizations was apparently an ongoing problem. Apparently, these organizations were “copycats” that dressed, acted, or otherwise tried to be Masons but weren’t officially approved. The Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Missouri was failing to fight these groups in Nebraska, and Nebraskans wanted protection.

Because of this, the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Nebraska A.F. and A.M. (Prince Hall) was established in 1919, marking the beginning of the second era of Prince Hall Masonry in Omaha from 1919 to 1968. Nathaniel Hunter served as the first Most Worshipful Grand Master of the Nebraska Grand Lodge. This Grand Lodge was formed to serve all of the Prince Hall lodges in Nebraska, including those in Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island, Hastings, and Alliance.

Also according to History Nebraska, the Amaranthus Grand Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star was founded in 1921. A women’s auxiliary of the Prince Hall Masons, the Amaranthus Grand Chapter of the Nebraska Jurisdiction had judicial, legislative and executive power over subordinate chapters in Omaha, Lincoln, Hastings, Grand Island, Alliance and South Sioux City.

In 1922, a building association was established to establish a permanent home for the city’s Black Masons. After not constructing their own facility, the committee was disbanded by 1927. However, in 1929 the Grand Lodge of Nebraska purchased a building located at North 26th and Blondo Streets to be a meeting hall. Said to, “fill a great need among the Negro population of the city for a meeting place of their own,” the Omaha World Herald wrote, “It is expected that the building will be used to house all Negro fraternal societies, with the organization patterned after those of the Knights of Columbus Catholic Center, the Jewish Community Center, and other organizations. The building featured meeting rooms, executive offices, and a large assembly hall. Completely renovated, the building hosted the Nebraska Prince Hall gathering in 1930, with 300 participants at the three-day convention. Interestingly, the cornerstone of the Masonic Hall wasn’t laid until 1941.

During this era, the Omaha Guide, a Black-owned newspaper in the community, regularly published a section called “Masonic News” and written by a “Grand Lodge Reporter.” To give you a sense of what that was like, in 1946 this column said of the Black Masons in Omaha, “…its membership has increased in leaps and bounds. It has accomplished wonders. It has strengthened and confirmed its very foundation…”

In the 1950s, lodges in Omaha started emphasizing youth involvement in the fraternity. Calling their recruitment a “youth movement,” the organization started advocating for civic participation among members, too. During this era, the organization was lauded by the Omaha Star for donations to the March of Dimes and the NAACP, as well as for supporting the local Civil Rights movement in Omaha.

Celebrations of St. John’s Day continued throughout the decades, with members attending celebrations at Zion Baptist, St. John’s AME, Salem Baptist, and other Black churches throughout North Omaha.

In 1953, members authorized trustees to find a new Masonic Hall for the Nebraska Grand Lodge, but that didn’t come to pass for another 15 years. The work continued the entire time, and eventually paid off, marking the beginning of a new era for Black Masons in Omaha.

Modern Times for Omaha’s Masons

The caption says "Thomas at Prince Hall Masons' quarters... former VFW building. This pic is from the June 9, 1968 Omaha World-Herald.
This pic is from the June 9, 1968 Omaha World-Herald. The caption says “Thomas at Prince Hall Masons’ quarters… former VFW building.

In 1968, the Grand Lodge of Nebraska purchased the Druid Hall at North 24th and Ames Avenue. A longtime fraternal hall at 2414-16-18 Ames Avenue was built in 1915, and since then the Prince Hall Masons have operated it for more than 50 years. That year, they sponsored a college scholarship and public service, and encouraged their members to be involved in business and civic matters in the community. That year there were 450 members in Omaha, Lincoln and Grand Island. Speaking of their ranks, that article said, “There are Masters, Wardens, Potentates, Inspectors, Generals, Worshipful Masters, and hosts of others holding positions of leadership in the community.”

In 1971, William R. Greenwood, a regional leader of the Prince Hall Masons, spoke at the Druid Hall. He declared the Masons had redirected the energy of their community outreach, moving from supporting the NAACP Legal Defense Fund towards “moving into the industrial field, trying to develop an economic base” for African Americans. He stated that “our thrust for the ’70s” should be focused on “finding jobs and developing job skills for Blacks.”

In May 1975, the Black Masons kicked off the 200th anniversary celebration of their organization with a fun night at Peony Park. Expecting 1,000 youth to attend, the event included a banquet and other activities. Other events included a “Youth Night” program with fashion and talent shows at Horce Mann Junior High School, and a commemoration banquet at the Peony Park Ballroom. There was also a parade from North 16th and California Streets to the Druid Hall, followed by an invite-only Grand Master, Grand Matrons Ball at the Holiday Inn at 72nd and Grover.

In 1979, a newspaper reported there were 456 Black Masons in Nebraska, with seven lodges in Omaha, one in Lincoln, and one in Grand Island. Sponsoring free Thanksgiving meals for seniors and those in need, Omaha’s Black Masons also shared holiday baskets with low-income families and more. Holiday outreach has continued since, making it more than 50 years of serving dinners and more. According to a 1993 article, “Today, the Masons and their auxiliary distribute food baskets, conduct clothing drives and contribute money when families face a disaster such as a home fire. Both the Masons and Eastern Star also support scholarship programs.”

In 1984, there was a presentation at Druid Hall focused on Prince Hall Masons’ contributions to Nebraska history, and the African American history of Omaha, and in 1985, the Nat Hunter Lodge #12 announced it received a grant to publish A History of the Prince Hall Masons in Nebraska. Focused on collecting written records, oral histories and more, the goal was to contribute to the “public understanding of the history of Blacks in Nebraska and the role of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge…” Dennis M. Mihilech of Creighton University and Bertha Calloway of the Great Plains Black History Museum were attached to the project along with others. In 1987, the publication was presented in Lincoln and in Omaha and featured more than 100 volunteers helped complete the project. Mihelich ended up presenting on the topic again in the 1990s and published several articles based on the research (see below).

After more than a century of Black Masons in Nebraska and 70 years of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Nebraska, in 1989, the Prince Hall Grand Lodge F. & A.M. and the Grand Lodge A.F. & A.M. began taking steps to recognize each other. In 1992, they held the first-ever integrated Masons event in Nebraska when they conducted the dedication of a new pavilion at the Omaha Home for Boys together.

In 2012, the Nat Hunter Memorial Committee was formed by the Grand Lodge to make a grave marker for Nathaniel Turner (1878-1942), credited as the first Grand Master of the Black Masons in Nebraska. He and his wife Ella Hunter (1880-1955) were buried without grave markers, and this successful campaign raised money for headstones for both of them. Ella was the first Worthy Matron of Shaffer Chapter, Order of the Eastern Star.

Today, there are seven chapters with “roughly 170 members” in Nebraska. The Druid Hall on Ames Avenue in North Omaha is the home of the Grand Lodge of Nebraska, as well as the 3-5-7 Club.

Lodges

This December 30, 1982 Omaha Star pic shows "Prince Hall Masons Spread Cheer Throughout The Community" in North Omaha
This December 30, 1982 Omaha Star pic shows “Prince Hall Masons Spread Cheer Throughout The Community.”

There have been many chapters, or “blue” lodges, in Omaha since the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Nebraska was founded in 1919. Some of these are still active, and many are not. They include but aren’t limited to the following:

  • Anchor Lodge #14
  • Excelsior Lodge #2
  • Hiram Lodge #10
  • J.D. Kelly Consistory #27
  • Nat Hunter Lodge #12
  • Progressive Lodge #12
  • Rescue Lodge #4
  • Rough Ashler Lodge #1
  • Zaha Temple (Shriners)
  • Damascus Temple of Mystic Shriners
  • Ivanhoe Commandery
  • Knights St. John Consistory
  • Eureka Chapter #33 (Royal Arch Masons)
  • Shaffer Chapter #42
  • Hiawatha Chapter #57
  • Rough AshIer #74
  • Excelsior Lodge #110

OES Chapters

Similarly, the Order of the Eastern Star (OES) has been active through several subordinate chapters throughout Omaha. They have included:

  • Adah Chapter #13
  • Deborah Chapter #17
  • Hiawatha Chapter #4
  • Omaha Chapter #6
  • Princess Oziel Chapter #11
  • Queen Esther Chapter #12
  • Ruth Chapter #9
  • Shaffer Chapter #1
  • Sheba Chapter #10
  • Zaha Court #72 (Daughters of Isis)

From 1921 to 1946, leaders of the OES in Omaha were Laura Johnson, Katherine Wilson, Maggie Ransom, Maude Johnson, Estelle Craig, Lula B. Alexander, Hazel Terry Lewis, Jennie Edwards, Hattie Brownlow, Viola Cole, Mable Galbreath, Mattie B. Gooden, and Cloma Hasting Scott. They are called Grand Worthy Matrons.

Notable Members

Special thanks to Karen Clopton for her contributions to this article.

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MY ARTICLES ABOUT CIVIL RIGHTS IN OMAHA
General: History of Racism | Timeline of Racism
Events: Juneteenth | Malcolm X Day | George Smith Lynching | Will Brown Lynching | North Omaha Riots | Vivian Strong Murder | Jack Johnson Riot
Issues: African American Firsts in Omaha | Police Brutality | North Omaha African American Legislators | North Omaha Community Leaders | Segregated Schools | Segregated Hospitals | Segregated Hotels | Segregated Sports | Segregated Businesses | Segregated Churches | Redlining
People: Rev. Dr. John Albert Williams | Edwin Overall | Harrison J. Pinkett | Vic Walker | Joseph Carr | Rev. Russel Taylor | Dr. Craig Morris | Mildred Brown | Dr. John Singleton | Ernie Chambers | Malcolm X
Organizations: Omaha Colored Commercial Club | Omaha NAACP | Omaha Urban League | 4CL (Citizens Civic Committee for Civil Rights) | DePorres Club | Omaha Black Panthers | City Interracial Committee | Providence Hospital | American Legion | Elks Club | Prince Hall Masons | BANTU
Related: Black History | African American Firsts | A Time for Burning

Elsewhere Online

BONUS

On April 4, 1942 these members formed a new Prince Hall Masons Lodge in Omaha called the Nathaniel Hunter Lodge #12.
On April 4, 1942 these members formed a new Prince Hall Masons Lodge in Omaha called the Nathaniel Hunter Lodge #12.

These are photos of Nathaniel Hunter (1878-1942), who served as the first Most Worshipful Grand Master of the Nebraska Grand Lodge in 1919.

William Richard Gamble (c.1850-1910), North Omaha, Nebraska
This was William Richard Gamble (c.1850-1910), an influential Black leader in Omaha in the 1870s and 1880s. Gamble is credited in Black newspapers a co-founder of the Prince Hall Masons in Omaha, and subsequently served as a Grand Master. However, no surviving formal documentation has been found showing this. You can find more info about him here. Family photo courtesy of Karen S. Walker.
This is a 1984 image of Edward F. Medlin, the Most Worshipful Grant Master of the Nebraska Prince Hall Masons.
This is a 1984 image of Edward F. Medlin, the Most Worshipful Grant Master of the Nebraska Prince Hall Masons.
Druid Hall, 2412 Ames Ave., North Omaha, Nebraska
This is the 1917 Druid Hall near 24th and Ames. It continues serving as the home to Nebraska’s Black Masons, and in 2020 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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