A few days ago while at a recent place of business, I ran into a brother who was present during my third degree. This was the same brother who often informed me his definition of what “free born” meant, and I am sure his coach imparted this same wisdom(?) to him. I am sure many of us have been imparted with this same wisdom(?) many times over. During this recent encounter, the brother expressed to me how he was “hurt” over our recent mutual recognition. Let me interject here, in the 26+ years since I was raised, he probably hasn’t attended the lodge more than a dozen times, and none in the last 20 years. Knowing his background, his remarks didn’t surprise me. I knew I couldn’t change his way of thinking, as it has been in his way of life for around 70 years now. I’ll not disclose how I know this but, I am well aware he and his siblings were brought up in a way and manner which was biased toward African Americans. To my knowledge none of his generation was ever in the Klan, but research shows most of his ancestors fought for the south during the civil war, and his great-grandfather was involved in helping establish the KKK. I firmly believe his feelings and beliefs were handed down though the generations, he was never taught different, and his feelings were carried over into Masonry – further enforced by his coach many years ago. What makes this a little ironic, are two things, first is his firm beliefs of prejudice, and second he is a die-hard democrat who votes a straight ticket and would never-ever cross party lines; need I say more.
Prior to the mutual recognition, in my travels I heard many brothers who were for it (usually the younger craft, less than 50 years old) and some of the older die-hard brothers who were against it. I even heard in a public gathering one brother proclaim that if Prince Hall recognition came to pass, he would demit to a state which doesn’t recognize Prince Hall, and obtain his 50 year status there (to this date, this brother has yet to demit, received his 50 year pin, and serves as an officer in his lodge.)
These two older brethren, have been taught that African American’s can’t be Masons because they are descendants of slaves. (Personally, I firmly and reasonably believe while some may, not all African Americans are descendants from slavery. To make such presumption all men of color are such descendants would be vastly erroneous.)
How many of us were brought up as these older brethren were? How many of us were told by our coaches and “well informed brethren” this same definition of “free born?” But more importantly, how many of us took to heart the meaning of seeking further light (knowledge), and remember we were told to judge a man by his internal qualities and not the external. How many of our generation practice this today when coaching or mentoring a new brother? I use the phrase “our generation” here, as I have observed these teachings of “free born” appear to have been somewhat twisted through the generations.
In my search for more light, I have stumbled upon the “free-born” issue was not based on slavery, but from a social status from the 14th century during the Pesant's Revolt in England. Without going into detail of the social and economic troubles of that time period which were compounded by a time of war, I want to share something I have learned from the writings and research of the late Brother John J. Robinson...
Up until the 1300’s the law of supply and demand to support the wars was in full force and effect. For the landowning class, there had never been a time when farm labor or farm tenant supply did not exceed the demand for it. Now the foundations of a way of life were beginning to crack. Now men began to pledge themselves in servitude to a stronger man who would offer protection. These stronger men pledged themselves to even stronger men, and so on. The warrior class became nobility, and as such needed wealth and labor to build their fortresses where their followers could come for protection. Included in these needs were the necessities of maintaining knights. Where did this labor force to build and maintain this system of protection – from the local peasants? In exchange for their servitude the peasants were eventually “given” nearby land, becoming tenant farmers, tilling farmland assigned to them on shares, while still making payments to the manor lord who provided them with protection during these turbulent times. Furthermore there were “stings attached” to being a tenant farmer; when one died, his best farm animal went to the lord of the manor, and his second best farm animal went to the Parish Priests. Neither he or his family could marry without permission; he was subject to restrictions on gathering firewood, taking wood to repair his house, killing wildlife for food, and even collecting manure that dropped in the fields and roads. If the manor lord owned a mill, the tenant had to pay for the privilege to use that mill. The tenant farmer was required to stay on at the manor to which they were born, and could never leave. In view of all of the above, the tenant farmer was a man bound in what some considered slavery.
Eventually men who revolted and called themselves “free” were required to prove it through genealogy and parish records.
While there is no proof Masonry was around during this time, there were secret societies with rituals, secret meetings, and signs of recognition by its members. Masonry as we know it didn’t publicly reveal itself until 400 years later when 4 lodges come to light, joined, and formed a Grand Lodge on June 24th, 1717 in Yorkshire, England. As we all know, one of the ancient landmarks of freemasonry is a requirement to be free born. In 1717, and most likely centuries before, the requirement to be free-born was in place. If it was proved a man was a descendant of those in servitude, he was denied membership, and if discovered after becoming a member he had to relinquish his Masonic membership.
Over the centuries, we have moved from a “class system” of society, and as such the “class system” has fell from within our organization (remember the part about judging a man on his internal qualifications?) As Brother Robinson writing reveal, free born isn’t directly related to the color of a man’s skin. If Masonry practiced today the same “freeborn” requirement it did 300 years ago, how many of us would qualify. How many of us could prove we aren’t descendants of those same tenant farmers; some of which whose descendants left England for a new life in the new world? How do we portray “free-born” to our newly raised brothers; do we solely base it on thee color of a man’s skin and that his race is the most recent victim of slavery? What would your family tree reveal from the 14th century – do you descend from manor lords or tenant farmers; would you qualify for membership? Think about it.