Philip E. Stanley chuckles when he thinks of the image most people conjure up when they think of Masons. That portrait, he says, is of odd old men wearing funny hats and engaging in complicated hand shakes.
"We're not like that at all," said Mr. Stanley, a West Baltimore resident who has been a Mason for 10 years. "We're just regular people."
Nearly 1,000 ordinary-looking members attended yesterday's opening of a six-day national conference at the Sheraton Hotel in Towson of a 146-year-old organization with a mind-bending name -- The Most Worshipful, National Grand Lodge Of Free and
Accepted Ancient York Rite Masons, Prince Hall Origin National Compact U.S.A.
The purpose of the conference, conducted every three years, is to elect national officers and to amend or delete bylaws. The group was founded in Boston in 1847 with a mission of working "among our people of color."
The Prince Hall organization's members, who come from chaptersin 30 states, are teachers, electricians, police officers and technicians -- and none asked for passwords or wore strange clothing.
"People think that if you're not in a college sorority or fraternity then you're with some very strange organization with a lot of hubbah, hubbah," said one Mason from Alabama. "The only thing strange about us is we like to wear tuxedos."
Mr. Stanley, who at 36 is one of the organization's younger members, said he got involved with the Masons because its members have strong religious backgrounds.
"We're just an organization that tries to help people and to be charitable," Mr. Stanley said. "That's why a lot of people like it."
Officials of the African-American organization, which has about 200 male and female members in Maryland and more than 5,000 nationally, said the group is dedicated to making charitable donations to organizations and the needy.
In recent years, the Masons have made sizable contributions to the NAACP and the Hurricane Andrew National Relief Fund. Locally, it has given to the Bea Gaddy soup kitchen in East Baltimore and prepared Christmas baskets for needy youths.
John D. Jordan Sr., who heads the Maryland delegation of Masons, said the organization is not political and does not follow any one religion, but all members have strong religious convictions.
"Our primary function is helping others. We don't do it in a loud way, but we do it and we're proud of it," said Mr. Jordan, a Mason for 20 years.
The Maryland chapter was established in Baltimore City in 1920.
Organizers said they have trouble attracting and retaining youths and may establish new programs aimed at them.