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ST. CROIX LODGE

Location: St. Croix, Virgin Islands

Current Status: dispensation declined, April 1956.


THE U. S. VIRGIN ISLANDS IN THE 1950s

On November 22, 1954, members of the Square Club of St. Croix, represented by Wor. Bro. John S. Colby as Chairman, wrote a letter to Most Wor. Bro. Whitfield W. Johnson asking whether Massachusetts might accept a petition for dispensation to form a lodge in St. Croix. He wrote:

We are residents of an English speaking island, and would of necessity conduct our lodge work and business in English. As you are doubtless aware, St. Croix is one of three United States owned Virgin Islands, formerly owned by Denmark, and sold to the USA in 1917. . . During the Danish occupancy, there was a Danish Masonic Lodge in existence in Christiansted, principal town on the island, but it finally expired about 50 years ago. . .

We would like to know if the Grand Jurisdiction of Massachusetts would accept our petition for a dispensation . . . Will you please write me airmail at your earliest convenience . . . giving us your official opinion as to whether or not the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts would accept our petition . . .

Grand Master Johnson wrote a "brief and superficial" reply on December 2, in which he acknowledged his appreciation of "the honor which you as a member of Norfolk Lodge have paid to your mother Grand Lodge by hoping that it would issue a dispensation . . . in times past our Grand Lodge had acted in the nature of a missionary Grand Lodge by chartering Lodges in China, Chile and the Canal Zone. However, Lodges at a distance create administrative problems which tend to discourage any extension of this practice." He also forwarded Bro. Colby's letter and his reply to Most Wor. Melvin M. Johnson for his comments.

In addition, the Grand Master received a short letter from Wor. Bro. John F. Snow, Jr., who indicated that he had been Senior Warden of Union Lodge of Nantucket before moving to St. Croix and that many "Continentals" would prefer a lodge in St. Croix, since they presently had to go over to St. Thomas to visit the English lodge. To this letter, written on December 27, he wrote an encouraging reply.

Since writing to Brother Colby I have talked personally to Worshipful Nathaniel Oakes Wells, who I believe is a Past Master of the English Lodge on the Island of St. Thomas, and who is interested in the establishment of a Lodge under the Massachusetts Constitution . . . in my informal discussion of this problem with some of the Past Grand Masters it was suggested . . . it might be well to have an American Grand Lodge assume Masonic jurisdiction over the Virgin Islands.

Grand Master Johnson suggested that the brethren on the various islands should consult with each other regarding the best way forward.

PETITION

On March 16, 1955, the Brethren of St. Croix presented a petition for dispensation, bearing the names of twenty-seven Masons. Four were members of Obreros del Progreso #63 under the Grand Lodge of Puerto Rico; five were members of Harmonic #356 under the English Constitution; and the remainder were members of other American lodges. Bro. Colby informed the Grand Master that it was unanimous that the various brothers that "we should have the dispensation in St. Croix, since they {the Brethren of St. Thomas} already have access to a Lodge in St. Thomas and there are no Lodges in St. Croix." His letter also included distances and costs for inter-island transportation, and suggested that many expatriate Brothers were 'rusty' and would benefit from a local organization.

The Grand Master wrote a letter on March 29 to the Committee of Foreign Relations detailing the various correspondence so far. While neither arguing for nor against the proposal, he asked the key questions: should Grand Lodge establish another extraterratorial lodge, and if so, "would it be easier to convince us to establish a lodge outside the continental United States than to convince some other jurisdiction which has never done so."

  • Past Grand Master Melvin Johnson declared himself "heartily in favor of the granting of a dispensation for a new lodge."
  • Past Grand Master Claude Allen declared that he would "look with some favor upon this application."
  • Past Grand Master Joseph Perry favored such action "for various reasons. There may be objections to so doing but they do not occur to me."

In due course, Most Worshipful Brother Whitfield Johnson wrote to Worshipful Brother Colby with a generally positive assessment of the situation. In lieu of sending someone to St. Croix, he said, he felt that the Grand Lodge would have to rely upon Colby for "judgment and advice." The officers-to-be would have to become proficient in Massachusetts ritual, and the lodge would have to "demonstrate its capacity to do the Massachusetts work and live up to our standards" before a Charter would be granted.

In the meanwhile, the matter came to the attention of the Grand Lodge of Puerto Rico, and a polite but somewhat stiff letter appeared on the desk of the Grand Secretary, Earl Taylor, informing him of the exact legal relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, and affirming the right of that Grand Lodge to establish lodges in the unclaimed territory of the Virgin Islands. In any case, the Grand Lodge of Puerto Rico had decided to take no action until Massachusetts had made its decision.

Over the summer of 1955 the Grand Lodge obtained confirming information on the status of various Brothers listed on the petition for dispensation. Bro. Miles Merwin, one of the petitioners, visited Boston on behalf of the them in August of 1955 and had a chance to meet with the Grand Master and Grand Secretary, and came away with a sense that the petition would be granted. The Grand Master wrote to Wor. Bro. Colby - who, after some adjustments, was chosen to be Master of the new Lodge - informing him of this, as well as the discovery that a clandestine, irregular Scottish Rite "National Supreme Council" was operating in the Islands, about which he was somewhat dismayed.

In the letter, however, the Grand Master brings up a sensitive subject.

There was one thing in the last paragraph of your letter about which I feel constrained to comment. You observed that the brethren on Saint Croix who were applying for a charter were composed of several races and nationalities. By any chance would any of them happen to be negroes?

I assume that you are familiar with the difficulty which resulted a few years ago when our Grand Lodge admitted the legitimacy of the origin of Prince Hall Masonry. We did not recognize this Grand Lodge for purposes of intervisitation or otherwise. We merely admitted that they had a legitimate Masonic origin . . . the Grand Lodge of Texas and the Grand Lodge of Florida withdrew recognition from our Grand Lodge . . . Many other southern Grand Lodges threatened to do the same and . . . our Grand Lodge was finally persuaded to rescind the resolution.

Our Grand Lodge would of course be very careful not to do anything to start the Civil War all over again, and therefore if any of the petitioners of the proposed lodge . . . were negroes or if it were contemplated that applications for the degrees would be accepted from negroes, the matter would take on aspects which had not been anticipated.

It would not bother him "in the slightest personally", he noted, but it would make things much more complicated. He also asked Brother Colby to keep the letter in strict confidence due to the sensitive nature of the inquiry.

"ON THE HORNS OF A DILEMMA"

After a few additional exchanges, Brother Colby's ultimate reply to the race question was straightforward and honest.

In accordance with your request . . . regarding the racial origin of certain of the individuals who signed our petition . . . I am pleased to inform you that three of the signers are full-blooded Negroes, and two others are of mixed blood. The remainder are Caucasians.

ALL of the signers are Master Masons of excellent character, which should concern you more, in my opinion. I am personally proud to be called a brother among them. . .

I fully believe that the future course of the proposed lodge will be to select careful, conservative investigating committeemen who make their recommendations to the lodge based upon their knowledge of the petitioner's character and future Masonic worth, and not upon his racial origin.

We will undoubtedly receive petitions for admission from negroes; you may be sure that we will accept from among them those that we consider worthy. However, it is my considered opinion that they will always remain at about the same proportion in numbers.

Brother Colby's honesty - in 1955! - must surely have caused some consternation in Boston, though there is no correspondence to indicate what the reaction to it had been. It is possible, since the Grand Master had made a point on more than one occasion to emphasize the confidentiality of the correspondence.

On January 13, 1956, Brother Colby wrote another letter to Grand Master Johnson, who had recently been installed for his third and final year as Grand Master.

The brethren signatory to the petition sent you are beginning to get restless, and I think it would be kinder to let them know that Massachusetts has no intention of granting them a charter, if that is the final decision, rather than let affairs drag along with no answer forthcoming.

Brother Miles Merwin wonders if you would consider the reception of a petition signed by all Caucasian Masons? He feels that if a charter were granted to such a lodge that other resident Masons of color could visit but not belong. I personally would not feel right about such a move, and could take no part in it . . . {I} would believe that I had deserted the group selfishly."

If Massachusetts declined the request and the group obtained a charter from the Grand Lodge of Puerto Rico, he would withdraw since he spoke no Spanish; he was, therefore, "on the horns of a dilemma, unless you get me off by granting us a dispensation!"

Grand Master Johnson, in his reply, alluded to a development he "hoped might take place in the latter part of October", but there is no indication what that was; in any case, he felt that if he were forced to an immediate decision it would be negative but he wanted to be sure before saying so.

In response to an April 10, 1956 letter from Colby, when he noted

Ample time has elapsed for your committee to have completed their deliberation. We feel that we are entitled to the courtesy of an immediate reply.

the Grand Master answered that

I regret exceedingly the delay in advising you with regard to your petition . . . I am sure you realize that this problem has been complicated with many unusual factors, and although it had been my sincere hope that these problems could be surmounted it now appears that they cannot be resolved at this time. Therefore, rather than delay the Brethren on St. Croix further, I have concluded that I must decline to grant the dispensation . . .

It is needless to say that personally I am disappointed that it was impossible to comply with your request, and I hope that our paths may have occasion to cross some day.

Brother Colby responded promptly, indicating that several local Masons belonging to Puerto Rican lodges had already communicated with the Grand Lodge there, and had been informed that Puerto Rico amended its constitution to extend jurisdiction over the Virgin Islands; apparently they would be more than happy to grand a petition for a lodge, to be named Carribean Light, for organization on St. Croix and with permission to work in English.

Shortly afterward, Colby resigned as the chairman of the Square Club. From his Masonic record, it appears that he left membership in Norfolk Lodge later that year, and ultimately affiliated with a lodge in Washington State. In any case, he passed out of view of the Massachusetts jurisdiction.

AFTERMATH

Caribbean Light Lodge #101 in St. Croix, V. I., is presently listed on the register of the Grand Lodge of Puerto Rico, likely the same as or a descendant of the lodge to have been received in late 1956 according to the information available.

There is some evidence of concern over the action of Wor. Bro. Nathaniel Oakes Wells during the negotiations between the Square Club and the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts during 1955, and Harmonic Lodge #356, E. C. suggested that this might have contributed to "misinformation" about the status and condition of the members of the Square Club on St. Croix. This matter came to the attention of Wor. Robert M. de Freitas, who wrote a letter to Most Wor. Bro. Andrew Jenkins, Grand Master Johnson's successor in office, making sure to set the record straight. "Here in the Virgin Islands," he wrote, "the true Masonic desire is to maintain Masonic activities on the highest possible level. We look with disfavor and disapproval on any attempt to inject the race issue, which cannot be of real benefit to any true Mason, even those few extremists, and despite whatever false rationalizations there may be for such attitudes elsewhere. In a letter to the Master of Harmonic, Grand Master Jenkins assured him that the matter "was considered and disposed of" and that there was nothing before the Grand Lodge regarding the Virgin Islands, and there was no intention by Massachusetts to involve itself there in the future. Unsurprisingly, he did not respond to Wor. Bro. de Freitas' remarks on race.

It is easy to infer what stopped the petition for dispensation in its tracks, and it is easy to blame Grand Master Johnson or the Committee on Foreign Relations for refusing it on what are seemingly racial grounds. But it is also important to recall that the Report on Negro Freemasonry was less than ten years earlier, and the recanting was even more recent. To characterize the Grand Lodge as overtly racist may be to apply modern standards to an earlier era. It is better to consider Massachusetts' leadership as hyper risk-averse. With so many other areas to occupy the Craft's attention, and another Grand Lodge waiting in the wings, there was no reason to "stick its neck out". And so the petition was refused; the lodge was formed in another Grand Jurisdiction; and it apparently meets to this day, conducting its affairs in English.


LINKS

Grand Master Whitfield Johnson

Massachusetts Lodges