California Freemason: Prince Hall, Then and Now

A Prince Hall Mason Blazing Trails in California's Court System

Gary Ransom broke barriers for the next generation of African American lawyers.

By Brian Robin

Above: Gary Ransom was the first African American to work in the Sacramento County public defender’s office, and just the fourth Black judge in the history of the county.

Typing the reports. That’s one of Gary Ransom’s first memories of Freemasonry.

“My father was the chair of something or another, and he had to file these reports with the Grand Lodge,” Ransom, now 82, remembers. “Whenever he had to file one of those big reports, I’d type it up for him.”

Yes, the man who flew 72 combat missions as a B-52 navigator over Vietnam, the man who was one of the first and most important African American lawyers in Sacramento, not to mention a past master of Prince Hall Philomathean Lodge № 2, cut his teeth as a typist.

These days, Ransom’s legacy is as considerable as his background is humble. Raised in a segregated area of New Brunswick, N.J., by a father who was a Prince Hall Mason, Ransom says he was taught early that “the best you’d ever be is a clerk at the post office.”

Ransom thought otherwise. Armed with a scholarship from his father’s lodge, he worked his way through Rutgers as an investigator for the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office of Civil Rights. He later joined the Air Force, dodging North Vietnamese missiles in a B-52. After the war, he enrolled at McGeorge Law School in Sacramento and passed the bar exam on his first try.

That made Ransom a trailblazer. “When I became a lawyer in 1974, there were only three or four Black lawyers in the entire county,” Ransom says. He was hired at the public defender’s office, making him the first Black attorney there. In 1981, Governor Jerry Brown appointed him to the Sacramento Municipal Court bench. George Deukmejian elevated him to the Superior Court in 1988, where he served until retiring in 2002. He often presided over Prop. 36 cases, diverting nonviolent offenders into drug treatment programs.

Ransom looked for ways to make an impact outside the courtroom, too. He helped found the Sacramento chapter of Sigma Pi Phi, a fraternity for African American professionals, and the Wiley Manuel Bar Association of Sacramento County for Black attorneys.

Not long after becoming a judge, Gary Ransom also became a Mason. He remembered the generosity of the Masons he’d known growing up, particularly to young people. “I wanted to join if it was going to help people, particularly my race, and I thought the Masons would do that,” he says. “The major thing was I was looking for people and an organization who were trying to help others.”

Whether from behind the bench or sitting in lodge, that’s been a lifelong motif for Ransom. “What kept me going was working on the generation behind us, knowing they could be something,” he says. In the same way he ignored others’ advice about his career prospects, “I don’t want them to sell themselves short.”


Read more profiles of California Prince Hall Masons here:

Gary Ransom Blazed Trails in California’s Court System

Your Honor: Judge John Weller Keeps Things on the Level

For Senior Grand Warden Aaron Washington, History’s in the Making

Meet Trevor Lawrence Jr., the Keeper of the Beat

Photography by:
Winni Wintermeyer

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