2800-2804 Bush Street on the northwest corner of Baker Street, home of Hannibal Lodge No.1. (Heritage photo)
by Woody LaBounty
Of the thousands of daily drivers that speed east through the Western Addition on Bush Street, some small percentage are stopped by the traffic light at Baker Street. A smaller percentage of those sitting at the red for 30 seconds may look around at the surrounding nineteenth-century houses and flats. A few gazes may fall on the elegant rounded-bay building on the northwest corner, with its unusual sideways staircase. Perhaps one person a day notices the blue and gold sign in the upper floor transom window. That individual almost certainly doesn’t know the sign marks an ongoing chapter of Black history in San Francisco that reaches back 170 years.
There are few San Francisco organizations still in operation that can trace their roots back in the city to the 1850s. One of them is discreetly housed at 2804 Bush Street. The second-floor sign above the door reads “Hannibal Lodge No. 1 F&AM, Prince Hall Affiliation, San Francisco, Calif.” In the center are the Masonic “square and compasses” and capital G symbol in gold script and the notation “Est. 1852.”
African Americans denied admittance from established lodges of the Free and Accepted Masons fraternal order created Prince Hall Freemasonry in the first years of the United States of America. As the gold rush kicked off in San Francisco in 1850, Phillip Buchanan, who had previously belonged to a lodge in Pennsylvania, made a request back east for permission for establish a new one in the west. Hannibal Lodge No. 1 was chartered in 1852 and went on to act as the Grand Lodge for Philomathean Lodge No. 2 in Sacramento in 1853 and Victoria Lodge No. 3 in 1855. (Until recently, Victoria Lodge still met at Thutmose Temple in Visitacion Valley.)
In the nineteenth-century, fraternal organizations were primary connectors for communities of all types, providing business contacts, social activities, insurance policies, and, in the case of death of a member, burial plots and arrangements covered by dues and benevolent funds. Masons, elks, odd fellows, woodmen of the world, knights of pythias, and independent “orders” of all types glued together men (and in rare cases, women) who shared nationality, occupation, artistic interest, hobby, social class, or race. They especially provided a sense of solidarity and resources for immigrant and marginalized communities.
In the nineteenth century, pockets of Chinatown and North Beach acted as small centers of African American life in the city. Powell and Stockton Streets on the north slope of Nob Hill, and more than a dozen small alleys in those blocks held residences, small businesses, meeting spaces, and churches used by Black San Franciscans.
View north from Nob Hill by Eadweard Muybridge in the 1870s. The pointed steeple on the far right is the First Methodist Church on Powell Street. Just to its left in the image can be seen the square tower of the Second African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church a block away. (OpenSFHistory/wnp70.0459)
After starting in North Beach, Hannibal Lodge No. 1 dedicated a new meeting hall farther west at Jackson and Powell Streets in 1873, and often held masonic ceremonies and partnered with the African Methodist Episcopal Church (later known as Bethel AME) a block away. Like all organizations, the Black masons had occasional internal discordances and divisions, including a fairly major split among the Northern California African American lodges in 1888.
When North Beach and Chinatown were destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and fires, much of the city’s African American population moved into the unburned Western Addition. Hannibal Lodge No. 1 relocated as well, first to 1547 Steiner Street, then landing at 2804 Bush Street just after World War II.
The lodge’s home for more than 70 years is not quite as old as the organization, but dates back to 1887. An Italiante-style work by the architect team of Charles W. Kenitzer and Edmund Kollofrath, it is an elegant and historic structure.
Fraternal organizations don’t attract the membership they once did. The list of active masons at Hannibal Lodge today might be just a little more than the total number of elected officers in former times. (The election of officers in late 1901 included not only the “worshipful master,” senior warden, junior warden, treasurer, and secretary, but also a senior deacon, junior deacon, chaplain, marshal, “tyler,” and two stewards.) But as society moves away from memberships that aren’t “virtual” or misnomer subscriptions to online business models, we need to acknowledge the true survivors.
Hannibal Lodge No. 1 has diversified somewhat (membership in Prince Hall Freemasonry is not limited to African Americans), but it has not lost its relevance to Black history in San Francisco. There are few stories going farther back, and the end is still not written.
Hannibal Lodge No.1 (Read more at the Hannibal Lodge No. 1 website.)