Clarence Stokes wants to clear up what he sees as a common misconception about freemasonry—it’s not a secret society!
Over the centuries, since its origin, the fraternal organization often has been perceived as mysterious. That’s given outsiders plenty of room to concoct conspiracy theories around the rituals and intentions of the group, some of which you may have heard.
While Stokes acknowledged that, in the past, masons mostly kept to themselves, things are different now, he said.
I can report that I didn’t have to repeat a chant or participate in any rituals in exchange for an interview with some local masons. We just jumped on a Zoom call.
Stokes and Jason Brown were eager to tell me about the masonic organization that they are members of—Chosen Friends Lodge No. 43. It’s a fraternal organization, they said, that has been the opposite of secretive, but present and active in the Harrisburg community.
“The history of this lodge is really the history of Harrisburg,” Brown said. “Our history is not separate from the community; it’s part of it.”
Leaving a Legacy
The lodge’s legacy is deeply tied to Black history in the nation and city. It’s part of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, a branch of freemasonry created by Prince Hall, a man who was one of many African Americans historically excluded from white lodges.
The first Prince Hall Lodge, then called the African Lodge in Boston, received certification as a masonic lodge in 1784. However, when several white lodges in the state joined to form a “Grand Lodge,” it was excluded, according to the book “History of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania.” The Prince Hall Lodge formed its own “Grand Body” and opened lodges in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and New York.
Chosen Friends got its start in Harrisburg in 1882. Over the years, it became a place for Black men to gather and form a network. From its early days up to today, politicians, lawyers, business owners, pastors, truck drivers, educators and other professionals have joined the ranks.
“It gave men of color some sense of importance amongst themselves,” Brown said. “It was a place of belonging.”
According to Brown, abolitionist and U.S. Colored Troops soldier Jacob Compton was the first Worshipful Master of Chosen Friends. John P. Scott was also a member and grand master of the statewide Prince Hall Lodge. Scott was the Harrisburg School District’s first Black administrator as a principal, and Scott Elementary School was later named for him.
Other historical figures from the lodge can be found memorialized as part of the Commonwealth Monument, recently installed on the state Capitol grounds. The bronze monument recognizes Black history in Harrisburg and includes a statue of Compton and other activists. Inscribed on it is a list of former residents from the Old Eighth Ward, a majority Black and immigrant neighborhood that was demolished to expand the state Capitol grounds. Several former lodge members are included in the list.
In the present day, the members still represent professions from across the board.
Harrisburg City Council member Westburn Majors has been a member of Chosen Friends Lodge for around seven years. He joined after witnessing his uncle’s experience as a mason and seeing how much the lodge meant to him.
“Guys that I looked up to were part of the lodge,” Majors said. “It was something I was always interested in.”
What Majors found when he joined was a place for fellowship and connection. Majors lost his father in 2008, but, through Chosen Friends, he gained a group of mentors that he could go to for advice and counsel. With them, he often discusses work, faith and family, he said.
“These connections to these guys are invaluable,” Majors said. “There’s a lot that can be learned by sitting and learning from previous generations.”
It’s not uncommon for Brown’s kids to see their dad talking to a stranger. They’ll ask who it was and Brown always responds the same way— “he’s my brother.” “But you just met him!” they’ll say.
There could be racial, cultural, religious or political differences, but a mason is a mason, and masons are brothers.
“It’s pretty unique,” he said. “You have a friend wherever you go.”
Not only is Chosen Friends a brotherhood, but the lodge has been instrumental in serving the community.
From 1891 to 1982, the lodge ceremoniously laid 16 cornerstones in the construction of buildings in Harrisburg, a traditional practice in masonry that symbolizes stability and strength. All of these buildings were local churches, with the exception of the Camp Curtin YMCA in Uptown Harrisburg.
Community service is what drew Stokes to become a mason. His mentor, a member of Chosen Friends, was always out in the community helping others.
“I love service and giving back to people that are less fortunate,” Stokes said.
The lodge has participated in holiday giving, adopt-a-highway and adopt-a-school programs. They’ve partnered with organizations like the American Literacy Corporation and the Boys and Girls Club. They’ve also hosted their own events like a daddy-daughter dance and a Thanksgiving meal distribution.
When Chosen Friends members meet in-person, it’s at the Scottish Rite Cathedral in Harrisburg. During the pandemic, events and monthly meetings were scaled back and mostly moved to virtual platforms. But for members like Majors, even the online connection was enough to combat isolation.
At the same time, freemasonry is dealing with another big problem—it’s losing its members. According to an NPR article, in recent years, masonic membership nationally has declined by around 75% from a high of over 4.1 million members in 1959. The decline is part of a national trend away from membership in places like Elks lodges, civic clubs and even the Boy Scouts, among other social, civic and fraternal organizations.
According to Brown, in the 1970s and ‘80s, there were close to 200 members of Chosen Friends. However, in the past several years, the lodge drew around 50 members.
Recruiting younger men has been a challenge, Stokes explained. Members’ ages range from the 30s to 90s, but most fall more in the middle to upper end of the scale.
Stokes, though, was positive about membership at the lodge. He wasn’t worried about its future.
“It has been a challenge with the younger generation,” he said. “But we have withstood the times.”
Brown credits Chosen Friends’ longevity with its ability to leverage connections in the community. This was true for Stokes, Brown and Majors, who all found Chosen Friends through the mentors and role models in their lives. If Harrisburg masons can continue to do that for the next generations, they believe the lodge has a bright future.
“We are an important part of the community,” Stokes said. “We are not just a secret society of men dressed in black suits. We take good men, and we make them better.”
For more information on Chosen Friends Lodge No. 43, visit their Facebook page or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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