TAMPA — Black Masonic lodges helped establish pioneering Tampa Bay churches, cemeteries and civic organizations.
They organized voters, and opened pharmacies and life insurance companies.
“They were the infrastructure for the social, political, medical and social constructs” of Tampa Bay’s Black community after the Civil War, Masonic historian Gerald Urso said.
Yet their names and accomplishments are “largely ignored,” said Carl Norton Jr., whose grandfather, George P. Norton, was among those pioneering Black Masons.
“Maybe it’s because history was written by men who didn’t care,” he said. “Maybe they didn’t know about it. But Tampa’s Black history has been shuffled over, hidden and lied about. We need to change that.”
On Saturday, as part of that mission, Tampa’s Masonic Jerusalem Military Lodge 100 will celebrate its 130th anniversary with a picnic at noon at shelter 120 at Lowry Park, 7525 N Boulevard.
It is free and open to the public.
The contributions of Norton’s grandfather will be highlighted.
“Everyone in Tampa should learn about George P. Norton,” said Urso, the grand historian for the Most Worshipful Union Grand Lodge of Florida, under which the Jerusalem lodge falls. “This is a start.”
Berton Newbill, the Jerusalem lodge’s worshipful master, said this event is also about the future.
The lodge has 41 members who support the community through scholarships, by caring for the lawns of families spending time with loved ones in hospice, and by providing holiday meals to less fortunate military families.
“We’d like to do even more,” Newbill said. “A start is to make this event annual to spread the word about what we do and have done. I want us to anchor ourselves in our history and legacy so we can move forward for another century.”
Masonic organizations are fraternal groups that trace their origins to 13th century stonemasons, who formed guilds to regulate their trade.
During the era of segregation in the U.S., Black citizens were forbidden from joining white lodges. So they formed their own.
Most Worshipful Union Grand Lodge of Florida chartered lodges throughout the state, including six that still exist in the Tampa Bay area — Jerusalem Military Lodge 100, Mount Pleasant Lodge 13, Landmark Lodge 93, Phillip A. Robinson Lodge 327, Hillsboro Lodge 242 and Shining Light Lodge 401.
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The Jerusalem lodge was founded by former members of the Buffalo Soldiers, the Black troops of the 24th and 25th Infantry and the 9th and the 10th Cavalry that were primarily deployed out west to protect settlers from the Native Americans being forcibly displaced. Those troops later made their way to Tampa, from which they sailed to Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American War.
“Early lodges typically took biblical names,” said Urso, a Jacksonville resident. The Jerusalem lodge was and remains “predominantly a military lodge, so most of the members are military. And, since they formed, a member of that lodge has fought in every war this country was in.”
Newbill, a retired lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Army, served in Iraq in 2008-2009.
George P. Norton, one of the Jerusalem lodge’s early leaders, served as doctor to the Buffalo Soldiers, according to Urso.
The Jefferson County native moved to Tampa in 1903 to establish one of the city’s first Black medical practices.
He also owned a pharmacy, founded the Central Industrial Insurance Co. and purchased land that he sold to Black residents.
Other lodge members during those pioneering times, according to news archives, included J.W. Crump, who helped Black businesses obtain necessary licenses; E. Dorsey, who registered Black voters; and Peter Johnson, whose Florida Industrial and Commercial company sold caskets, served as undertakers and owned Zion Cemetery, the Black burial ground that was erased and recently rediscovered.
Such men succeeded with help, Urso said. The lodge was a support system. At meetings, they’d discuss what needed to be done to improve life for Black residents.
Lodge leaders would then gather with the heads of the area’s other Black Masonic organizations and work as a unit to address the larger issues, Urso said. “They didn’t have Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. So how did the message cross over? Through the lodges.”
Together, according to news archives, those Masons helped establish trade and business organizations such as the Tampa Negro Board and Trade and the local chapter of the National Negro Business Leagues, churches such as Bowman Methodist Episcopal Church, and medical facilities like Clara Frye Hospital.
“People of my age know the names and accomplishments of those African American men who built this city for us,” Norton, 82, said. “But they will be forgotten if we don’t continue to talk about them and honor them.”