Uncovering History, Black and White

February 16, 2013
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Black history is detective work, uncovering clues and putting together narratives that survived underground for generations, or sometimes in plain view but unrecognized by historians. Dr. Ann Robinson has documented African American life and history in New Haven this way for over 40 years. Along the way she has found and championed new connections between the past and present and sometimes, like last summer, opening a new door between them.
    A North Carolina-born psychology professor and community historian in New Haven’s Dixwell neighborhood, she grew up seeing African-American Masons in her community as remote, notwithstanding that her father was one. She and her husband Charles moved in August 1967 to New Haven, where he taught at Yale’s medical school and she taught first at Trinity College and then Gateway Community College.
    She wrote a column for the New Haven Register, “As I See It,” to give voices inside the black community. Her daughter Angela Robinson became a superior court judge, the youngest ever appointed.
    During that whole time the city saw riots, assassinations and New Haven’s Black Panther trial. Freemasons seemed even more irrelevant. So she was startled when, in the 1990s, the local Prince Hall Masons contacted her to help prepare their lodge to join the Connecticut Freedom Trail.
    From her father, she knew African-American Freemasonry went back to Prince Hall, the freedman who founded a chapter in Boston. When white American Masons refused to admit Hall and 14 other black applicants, they started their own lodge with authority from the Masons of Great Britain. Yet for over 200 years, American Freemasonry, with a core tenet of universal brotherhood, was segregated by race.
    It was also segregated by gender. “It was a secret society,” she said, “closed to women.”
    Soon after she was invited, however, she took a tour inside the Widow’s Son Lodge, an old brick building on Goffe Street that she had never felt welcome enough to enter. She walked into the foyer and encountered a life-size bust over six feet tall, with a forbidding expression. She continued on to the main room – there was the same man again, this time in a large oil portrait on the wall. She couldn’t tell if he were white or black. She could only see that he was stiff and formal. Who was this? Robinson wondered.
    Robinson told me this two years ago when our detective work intersected. In the course of other research I had come across the papers of African-American lawyer George Crawford, a co-founder with W.E.B. Du Bois of the NAACP and a core member of its predecessor, the Niagara Movement. Through a series of phone calls I had found a protégé of Crawford’s in the Prince Hall Masons, who suggested I talk with Dr. Robinson.
    I phoned her standing on York Street as snow came down. She politely put me through a vetting. Who was I? Was I African-American? I replied that I was a white male writer (exactly the kind who had stolen stories before). I explained my background and my work. After ten minutes, she invited me over to talk.
    The woman who came to the door was youthful-looking, in a terra-cotta colored dress and short grey dreadlocks. She was formidably articulate. Her husband Charles took my coat, and when his wife mistakenly introduced me as a Mason he tried to shake my hand with the Masonic handshake until I explained that no, I’m not a Mason.
    We sat in their living room and talked about the man whose bust had so commanded the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge: George Crawford. She was surprised to learn that he had been born in Alabama, had started life as a Southerner like her, had actually had a hand in anything like civil rights activism.
    “I thought until yesterday he was indigenous to New Haven,” she said.
    Then she considered. “How did he change New Haven?” Maybe through his legal opinions. Certainly the Masons seemed to be “his constituency.”
    She listened as I explained what I had found in the Yale library collection: his correspondence with Du Bois, the clippings of his “firsts” – first African-American to head Connecticut’s draft board in World War II (when he instituted advances for black soldiers), first African-American to take a prominent position in a city government anywhere in the state. One scrapbook held a cable from President Kennedy dated June 1963 inviting him to the White House for a discussion of civil rights. Yet his scrapbooks also held painful mementos. With what emotion had he pasted in a cartoon from his hometown, the Birmingham Herald, with a caricature of him as an ape, its only recognition of his triumph as one of the first black law graduates from Yale?
    Crawford’s friendships stretched from his headmaster at Tuskegee, Booker T. Washington, to Du Bois and the NAACP, and on to Thurgood Marshall, his protégé in Prince Hall Masonry and the younger lawyer who delivered the triumph of Brown v. Board of Education 50 years after Crawford had stood with Du Bois for a more assertive brand of leadership for equality.

    Later Ann Robinson brought our talk full circle: She and Charles opened the doors of the Prince Hall lodge to the public for a walking tour in the city’s International Arts & Ideas Festival. So that one Sunday afternoon I walked up steps to a door that had been locked before, and it opened. Above us in the foyer stood the bust of George Crawford, chin up, Masonic cap in place, a rather defiant welcome to visitors.

Dr. Ann Robinson (second from left) with other hosts of the event at the Prince Hall Masonic lodge.

    Watch the short video to see more of the connections, and dig deeper into history.

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