William Dorsey, a member of Nathaniel M. Adams Military Lodge 29, stands beside a Black History Month display. (Hamil Harris/ The Washington Post)

Claiborne D. Haughton Jr., a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, cited many examples of African American success to make the answer clear-- from Garrett A. Morgan, who invented the traffic light, to the Tuskegee Airmen, who helped bring about the integration of the U.S. armed forces.

 “America would not have been the been the land of the free and home of the brave if we had not come,” said Haughton, who has cerebral palsy but rose to become one of the highest-ranking blacks in the U.S. Department of Defense. “With our blood, sweat and tears, we have set the tone for this nation.”

The building where the event was held is itself a significant part of the city’s history. In 1775, Prince Hall, a freed slave from Boston, established the first lodge ever for black free masons. In 1848, the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of the Jurisdiction of Washington DC, Free and Accepted Masons began.

“Black Americans have always been great contributors to America from its inception,” said MacKinnon W. Myers, the 78 Most Worshipful Grand Master of the Grand Lodge. “[Haughton] emphasized for us to truly remember those contributors and the sacrifices that were made for America to be what America is today.”

The Ladies of the Order of the Eastern Star traded in their white dresses for African attire for the occasion. (Hamil Harris/ The Washington Post)

Even though the U Street corridor is one of the most diverse areas of the District, the sight of Masons and Eastern stars going and coming from their sixth story headquarters was a reminder of the days before integration when both had huge influence  in the African American community.

“We have been around a long time,” said Napoleon Jones,75, a former Grand Lecturer in the group. ”At one time masonry was a great thing to belong to, particularly for African Americans because we didn’t have a lot of things that we could be part of. “

Minervan Sanders, Past Matron of the Gethsemane Chapter No 3., said the Mason and Eastern Stars have played a critical role in the black community in terms of benevolence.

“Years ago when we didn’t have access to support groups like Catholic charities, it was the Masons and Eastern stars that provide support for our widows, orphans and people in need,” Sanders said. “People knew if you were Mason or Eastern star they would be buried.”

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