The important role of clubs in Black New York in the early 20th century cannot be overstated. While class and color discrimination did impact membership and participation, Black Harlemites relied on clubs for networking – professional and personal.
The masons played a significant role in Black Harlem in the 1920’s
The New-York Historical Society has more on African Americans and freemasonry
African American freemasonry originated during the American Revolution. On March 6, 1775, fourteen men of color were made masons in Lodge #441 of the Irish Registry attached to the 38th British Foot Infantry at Castle William Island in Boston Harbor, Massachusetts. Prince Hall, a freedman and leather worker, would emerge as the leader of this group, called African Lodge #1. After the war, the group applied to the Grand Lodge of England, the Premier Grand Lodge of the world, for a charter to organize a regular masonic lodge, with all the rights and privileges that went along with it. On September 29, 1784, the Grand Lodge of England issued a charter to African Lodge #459, the first lodge of African Americans Freemasons.
This was the beginning of a tight knit Freemason community based upon common race, history, and experience. Through a growing network of lodges, African American masons promoted fellowship, mutual aid, and social respectability, while standing against slavery and white supremacy. Together, free blacks were much stronger than they could be standing alone, and voluntary associations like those of the Freemasons empowered them and created the potential to exert influence in the community.
I recently came across a commemorative coin celebrating the anniversary of a Harlem lodge:
This 1934 coin is also notable because it shows Harlem’s High Bridge (the route of Croton Aqueduct water supply into New York City) in its original, masonry arches, form. If you’ve been to the Highline or passed under it on Harlem River Drive, you know that a large iron span replaced the multiple arches over the river. Masonry arches remain on both banks: