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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · January 12, 2016

Report from Sueanna Smith, Lapidus Fellow

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Today’s post comes from Sueanna Smith, graduate student at the University of South Carolina, who used funds she received as a Lapidus-OIEAHC Fellow to further her dissertation research. There is still time to apply for the next application round. Applications will be accepted through midnight, Friday, January 15. 

The Lapidus-OIEAHC Fellowship supported my doctoral research by funding a trip to Boston to conduct archival research on early African American freemasonry.

Initially, my research was shaped by questions about the relationship between black freemasonry—specifically Prince Hall Freemasonry—and African American print culture in the 19th century. Because one of my primary goals was to develop a thorough understanding of freemasonry itself, I spent much of my time at one particular institution: the Samuel Crocker Lawrence Masonic Library at the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. I consulted several file folders containing uncatalogued material that included lodge records and proceedings, masonic correspondence, and the research notes of masonic writers and historians. These folders, along with the library’s extensive collection of early masonic print, provided me with a unique opportunity to study the cultural landscape of freemasonry, particularly its manuscript and print culture.

For example, the library’s extensive collection of printed pamphlets provided a detailed outline of the early masonic address as a specific literary genre whose thematic focus, language, and material format changed over time. Moreover, these printed pamphlets also provided information about the production, dissemination, and function of masonic texts. The inscriptions contained within these works further suggested that the institution of freemasonry was predicated upon a system of circulation and exchange. Here, the circulation of printed texts and other fraternal artifacts facilitated the very social exchanges and fraternal interactions that freemasonry sought to establish.

Finally, as I traced the circulation of pamphlets and other fraternal objects, I discovered many cases where these exchanges facilitated interracial masonic fellowship. I found evidence of white masons visiting black lodges, examples of black masons belonging to white lodges, and instances where black lodges operated under the jurisdiction of white lodges. These findings challenge the common image of black freemasonry as a distinct, autonomous institution, an image that has been reinforced by scholarship that focuses solely on the institution of Prince Hall freemasonry.

This research altered the entire trajectory of my doctoral research. Now, my dissertation examines the many different ways that early black freemasons participated in masonic print, manuscript and artifact culture.—Sueanna Smith

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