Posts Tagged William Alston-El

Was Frederick Douglass a Prince Hall Freemason? No.

What Would Frederick Douglasss SayOne of the many random, and not necessarily helpful, things I was repeatedly told during my research was that Frederick Douglass was/is a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. True, Douglass is an honorary member and the only member initiated after death, but Douglass is not really an Alpha brother.

One of the more helpful and interesting questions and/or tips I received during the research was from an older gentlemen in Baltimore, who knew Douglass biographer Dr. Benjamin Quarles, and had spent years trying to confirm if Douglass was, in fact, a Prince Hall Freemason. Douglass could have been a member at a Rochester, Baltimore, or Washington, D.C. lodge. Take your pick.

The gentleman’s main hunch was that in a photo of Douglass’ funeral outside of Metropolitan AME on Feb. 25, 1895 there appear to be black men in white robes. This, among many things, is characteristic of a fraternal organization whether it be the FOP or Prince Hall Masons. The Baltimore gentleman had thoroughly checked Maryland lodge records to see that Prince Hall Freemasons had arrived in Washington at Douglass’ funeral en masse. That’s the sum of what he reported in addition to some unique ways Douglass ran his Cedar Hill home.

Masonic Wall Paper at Cedar HillFirst, at Cedar Hill women slept on the west side of the home while men slept on the east side. This a fraternal practice. Secondly, the wall paper. In the wall paper there are symbols that are fraternal. While taking a tour of the home a couple years back with my friend William Alston-El, a Moorish American, he identified the Star of David and the Star and Crescent.

There’s a new book of essays out, “All Men Free and Brethren: Essays on the History of African American Freemasonry” which recognizes, or rather recycles (Levine, Robert. “Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass and the Politics of Representative Identity.” UNC Press, 1997.) a known Douglass quote that runs counter to those who believe he was a member of a fraternal organization such as the Prince Hall Freemasons.

In fact, Quarles, reportedly a Prince Hall Freemason, even includes a line in his biography of Douglass that explicitly says Douglass had enough associations and was too involved to lend his time, or need to, to be a member of a fraternal organization.

True scholars of Douglass know how deep his understanding of world and American history truly was. Douglass, a journalist and editor, knew the heartbeat, pulse, and rhythm of his life and times and the men, women, and children of his race. In his writings and lectures he recognized the “occult.” Douglass was a man of all seasons but he was not everything. Many of his friends were freemasons but there is no single piece of evidence that I know of that indicates Douglass was a Prince Hall Freemason.

Please tell me I am wrong. And, please, stop saying Douglass was/is an Alpha unless you clarify he is an “Honorary Alpha.”

(I actually had someone tell me they saw a photo of Douglass marching in Baltimore at the head of an Alpha Phi Alpha procession…. only that Douglass died in 1895 and the Alphas were founded as the first black Greek-letter organization for black college students more than a decade later in December 1906!)

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Thank you to Anacostia resident William Alston-El for keeping alive the spirit of Frederick Douglass

If you have been in Anacostia more than once in the past forty years there is a good chance you have come across William Alston-El. Over the past two years I have come to know William, writing about him for stories on Greater Greater Washington. Like Frederick Douglass, he once ran the streets with a reckless abandon. But William has since turned a new corner in his life and takes leadership roles in Anacostia not many others can take. “I show up at all the meetings to speak for those who aren’t there,” he has often told me. When walking the neighborhood William employs tough love as well as encouragement to many of the men and women he has known for decades but are still struggling with substance abuse issues. “If I can change, and make a difference in my community, so can you brother/sister,” he often says. Additionally, William is in touch with the younger generation often imparting advice to them. He can speak their language and has a legitimacy which few others have. William, a painter by trade, advocates the “mechanical arts” much like Douglass did in his later years.

It is through men and women like William that the spirit of Frederick Douglass lives on in today’s Anacostia.

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