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Elks Lodge's 1st Black Member Says He Did Not Set Out to Break Color Bar

January 31, 1990|TRACEY KAPLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first black to join the Van Nuys Elks Lodge after a months-long controversy over its racial policies said he took the lodge's secret initiation rites Tuesday because he wants to continue watching televised sports there, but as a member, not as a guest.

Ben Harvey, 41, of Pacoima said he did not intentionally set out to break a color barrier when he told lodge members late last year that he wanted to become a member after watching about seven football games on Monday nights with friends at the lodge's bar on Friar Street.

"I asked, 'What do you have to do to be a part of this, to get a card to get in anytime you want?' " Harvey said.

Harvey's casual interest in joining the lodge coincided with a state investigation into allegations of racism in the fraternal organization.

The state attorney general's office has been investigating whether the lodge violated state civil rights laws in September by twice rejecting two blacks who applied for membership.

Lodge spokesman Dan Davis said at the time that the two men were not turned down because of their race, but because other members--who must approve applicants by a two-thirds vote--resented the involvement of state Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Tarzana), who nominated them.

Last week, the lodge accepted Harvey, who was nominated by the club's exalted ruler, George Aguilar, at a closed meeting, with 59 of its 300 members voting. The lodge did not reveal the result of the vote.

"I'm sure when the vote went down, there were some 'nos,' " Harvey said. "But my philosophy is you treat people the way you want to be treated--with respect."

During the fall football season, he frequently watched games on television in the club's bar as Aguilar's guest, Harvey said.

Tuesday, Harvey, a laminating plant manager, became the first black recipient of the lodge's membership badge--a gold Elk lapel pin--after swearing eternal brotherhood with fellow members in a secret initiation ceremony.

"You don't have to ride a goat or anything like that to get in," said Steve Duchscherer, a past exalted ruler of the Van Nuys lodge. "It's a very nice, quiet ceremony."

As a member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks, as the organization is officially known, Harvey is entitled to visit lodges nationwide, including the opulent Long Beach club, which boasts an "endless" bar, actually an illusion created by mirrors.

Harvey also must observe a hallowed tradition of the 126-year-old club, said a member who asked not to be identified. Every evening at 11, Elks members are supposed to take a moment to silently remember departed Elks. If they happen to be in an Elks club, a bell will strike 11 times and members are supposed to join hands in remembrance of their deceased brethren, the Elk said.

"I'll do whatever the members do," Harvey said Tuesday in his split-level, four-bedroom brown stucco house on a hillside overlooking the San Fernando Valley.

Harvey, a long-distance runner, has a crossed right eye from a childhood accident.

He was raised in Memphis, where his mother worked as a maid, and remembers segregated schools and public facilities. "You couldn't go in certain doors or sit in certain places."

He said he feels that discrimination still "happens every day, but that's their problem. We work hard and contribute to society. If they don't like us, that's too bad."

He said he and his wife, Therese, attended a fund-raiser at the lodge last month.

"As the only black people there, they sure looked at us," Therese said. "But as the night went on, they started coming over and talking to us, and I think they decided we're not so bad after all."

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