Friday, December 18, 2009

Keystones and Cornerstones.

This old church always interested me and it wasn't until 2009 on a vacation/family visit that I finally decided to check it out. I suppose you could call it charming or quaint, but there is a kind of stately grace to the Mt. Pleasant AME Church located just off Gunn Highway in the unincorporated areas of North Tampa. (Florida has no mountains, btw!)

When I was a kid this was all farmland but "development" has taken its miserable toll. Citrus Park now hosts a sprawling mall with a leaky roof and the quiet that was once to be found here is gone forever. Technically, this area is called Keystone--a suggestive name given what's to follow. In the late 80's it was still a pretty poor place; now the median family income is over 106,000 dollars per year. Still, I'd be hard-pressed to recognize this as "progress." It's character is dead and the traffic is unbearable.

Keystone, ahh yes, Masons know this as the stone that holds it all together. For Royal Arch Masonry (York Rite), the Keystone is a central metaphor and component of its legend.

When I investigated the church I found the following cornerstone bearing theMasonic square and compasses and the inscription "J. Sterling Walker Lodge No. 636." I assume this is a Prince Hall Lodge but so far web searches have yielded nothing. Plea: If you know anything about this Lodge I'd love to hear from you.

According to the video accompanying this article there were only about six large black families living in the area at the time of this reconstruction (in 1924; the first church burnt down in 1918 in what some suspect was not a lightning strike....) Which is funny because that might mean that almost if not all of those families were involved in Freemasonry---only nine family names are inscribed on the cornerstone.

Most of what we can find out about the church these days is in connection with the building they now use as a fellowship hall. From the mid-twenties until 1946 it served as the "Colored School." (Schools weren't fully de-segregrated in Florida until 1974!) Two years after it closed the building was sold to the church and thus it has stayed until these present times. More pics here.

Thankfully, as a county historical landmark it will stay protected. It's a beacon of calm in the increasingly cookie-cuttered Hillsborough County and a reminder of past times both better and worse.

On a hunch, I Googled AME Church and Freemasonry and found the following, thoroughly unsurprised:

Throughout the South, the African Methodist Episcopal Church and, to a lesser extent, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church were closely related to the Prince Hall lodges. As many of the founders of the A.M.E. church were Freemasons, as well as many of the senior officials, the spread of the church throughout the South was closely affiliated with the spread of Prince Hall Freemasonry. The Free African Society, as a sister organization to the A.M.E. church, was founded to promote racial solidarity and the abolition of slavery.

Many of the members of the A.M.E. church in Charleston, South Carolina participated in the 1822 slave insurrection led by Denmark Vesey. By 1860, there were at least four A.M.E. Churches in New Orleans -- three of which were led by “slave preachers;” as early as 1823 free blacks had built a church for “African Methodists” in St. Louis, Missouri. If, as William Muraskin notes in his Middle Class Blacks in a White Society, there was a close affinity between the A.M.E. church and Prince Hall Freemasonry, it is safe to assume that the two coexisted.

I'm developing a pretty good eye and intuition for these things....

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