Masonic Hall: Once A Hub of African American Culture and Society

 

The building pictured below is the Masonic Hall. It is but a remnant of its past glory.Built by  an Indiana chapter of the Prince Hall Free Masons the fraternal and service organization is a branch of North American Freemasonry founded by Prince Hall in the 18th century  composed predominantly of African Americans.

For years, the Hall served as a civic and social meeting place serving several generations of African American and Puerto Rican citizens of East Chicago, Indiana a polyglot city also referred to as the “Twin City” because of its two-distinctive business and residential corridors both incorporated under one city charter, East Chicago and Indiana Harbor.

However, the most fundamental difference was the way the bloods of different races and nationalities mingled within each twin. Both twins had predominantly foreign populations, but one was more foreign than the other. After completing of the North Township on July 30 1907, their report cited that foreign born residents made up fully 75 per cent of the people of East Chicago, and an even greater 85 percent of the population of Indiana Harbor. The writer Archibald Mckinlay describes in his book Twin City, East Chicago had a high percentage of so called Old Immigration, including Welsh, English, Irish Scandinavian, and German; the number of nationalities in East Chicago was limited mainly to northern European,Slavic, and Italian, and the number of races to one: white, Indiana Harbor on the other hand had all of the tongues of Babel and all the colors under the rainbow, and the number of races and nationalities was unlimited.”

The Twin Cities various civic, social and fraternal service groups such as the Elks and Kiwanis, were for all intent and purpose, segregated with restricted membership. A wide range of planning and organizing activities were the exclusive province of the largely white business and civic leaders. As tens of thousands of blacks migrated and settled into the city there was a need for spaces and institutions to accommodate cultural and social activities that were not within the purview of churches or public schools. Prince Hall Masons attempted to fill a void by building a facility to serve as a venue designed for convening conferences and meetings to accommodate both entertainment and social events for a growing urbane black middle class.

The Masonic Hall was built on the Harbor side of town; a two-story brick edifice  designed with a stage for the  performance arts,music concerts lectures, conferences and social gatherings.

The old Masonic Hall building conjures memories of doting parents accompanying aspiring  young performers with incredible talent and glazed with dreams, poised to dance or stroll down a fashion run way eager to sing or play with a band before an audience. There were lectures, rallies, regular dances, teas, wedding receptions,political rallies, civil rights forums, plays and other social events that helped make the fabric of black communal life from post WW II era leading up to the civil rights era and the accepted normalcy of northern defacto racial segregation. In fact, any activity deemed social, communal and constructive for black folks in East Chicago took place at this historic venue. My early teen singing groups, appeared before their first audiences there along with pretty young debutantes, and tap dancers; Puerto Rican and Mexican wedding receptions, musicians’ recitals, weekend teen dances, featured bands and artists from the Region, aspiring singers, guitarists all found a welcoming forum within the walls and safe haven of the Masonic Hall.

I recall my last appearance there with the Valiant’s, a group I organized a few years earlier as a sophomore at East Chicago Roosevelt with the late Fred Kelly a gifted baritone.

I returned to East Chicago the end of my sophomore year in college with my roommate, a fine guitarist, Frank”Silk”Smith a chemistry major from Cleveland I’d teamed with in Nashville. That summer Frank stayed with my family and I. Our plan was to secure music bookings and gigs around the Chicago/Gary area together as we worked in the steel mills to make a little extra money before heading back to Fisk.I also sang with The Valiants my earlier group who were booked for a show at the Masonic Hall.The group was still fantastic and had recorded my early ballad,“I Shed a Tear” sung by lead singer Fred Kelly an original Valiant. My next-door neighbor, Solomon Ard,who was the first black Fire Chief of East Chicago, along with a former member of “The Senators” singing group, Delroy Bridgeman who’d returned from the Armed services. Rounding out the group was the late beloved Clifton “Bellows” Johnson.

Frank “Silk” Smith and I had gigged around Nashville’s clubs and colleges and earned a few bucks on the Music City’s famous Music Row recording demos and jingles. Frank backed us on guitar and was asked to play for the The Opals who at the time were riding the “Hit Chart” with  a danceable tune,”Hop, Skip and Jump”. The talented group was the Region’s answer to the “Supremes” but never received the deserved recognition nor the needed promotion as a female vocal group. Talented, singer/actor Ludie Washington sang with the Valiants after I left the group to attend University also performed on the show along with Gordon Keith. Both men were among the four co-founders of Steeltown records; the label that originally discovered and recorded the Jackson Five and Michael as well as “The Valiants.”

The Masonic Hall was packed that grand night and the entertainment was as usual excellent. I had seen The ECW Senators a male vocal group led by Delroy Bridgeman and made up of black , white and Puerto Rican students, signed to Gary’s Vee Jay records as well as Mo Rodgers and other great local groups had appeared at the Masonic Hall over decades. The Valiants last show remains my fondest memory of a place and time in history with old friends with whom I spent many hours singing and harmonizing some of whom have  made their transition: Fred Kelly, Solomon Ard, Richard Sanders (original Valiant), Clifton “Bellows” Johnson all gone too soon.masonic-hall-ec-indianaMasonic Hall Indiana Harbor an historic landmark and popular hub of Black and Latino  Social life. The  ECW Senators a racially integrated student singing Group, A classic picture of An African American Debutant’s Ball. Social events, dances and performances were part of the Masonic Hall’s community based programs.

The Masonic Hall, a fabled institution that provided much fun, recreation and community engagement for generations of black and Hispanic residents. One other personal highlight of that special summer came when” Frank “Silk” Smith and I performed at the new Sheraton Hotel in downtown Gary. Headlining the show were the Jackson Five featuring a phenomenal other worldly, supremely gifted “man-child” named Michael, we all knew Michael and the group were destined for ‘Big, Big’ things, everyone within ear shot of the Sheraton’s new sparkling hotel ballroom was in awe, completely mesmerized the rest as they say:”is history”! D. Day Media 2017

 

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