When Louis Harris recently received the Everett Elks Lodge’s Citizen of the Year Award, he became part not only of the group’s evolution, but its betterment.
African-American, gay and just 31, Harris doesn’t fit the profile of what most would see as a typical Elks member or honoree. Only white men could join when the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was founded in New York in 1868.
Change took more than a century. But it wasn’t embraced, certainly not in Everett where respected City Councilman Carl Gipson was blackballed from becoming an Elk in 1977. The national organization had amended its bylaws in 1972 to allow black members. It wasn’t until 1995 that the fraternal order removed the word “male” from membership qualifications.
Today, women hold all the major leadership roles at Everett Elks Lodge No. 479.
Darcy Kirschner completed her term as Exalted Ruler March 31. Succeeding her in that top post is Marge Huleatt.
Kirschner talked Thursday about her push to change the face of the Everett lodge, including Harris being recognized March 29 along with other award winners.
“My big role this year was to promote change, promote inclusion,” she said. While respecting the group’s past, Kirschner saw her goal as “really shining a light on how to keep relevant. We have to continue to change.”
Many members are older, with an average age of 65, said Kirschner, who is 50. “We have 703 members,” she said. “Back in the day, it was up over 5,000. It was a men’s club, and they worked their way up through the chairs. Things are really different now.”
Harris, who has joined the Elks, said his Citizen of the Year Award was “a surprise out of the blue.”
“As an African-American gay man, I was honored. It felt humbling,” he said. Talking with Kirschner, he learned about efforts to encourage diversity. “It speaks to our time,” he said.
Harris, who works for the state Department of Social and Health Services, is among more than a half-dozen candidates seeking an open seat on the Snohomish County Council. The August primary will trim that list down to two who’ll face off in November.
Born in Everett, raised in Marysville and living in Mukilteo, Harris has long been involved with the Snohomish County Branch of the NAACP. He served as the chapter’s vice president and has been part of the Snohomish County Black Heritage Committee that organizes the annual Nubian Jam at Forest Park. He’s been involved with ALLIED, an NAACP effort to target racial hatred, and with the North Puget Sound Conference on Race.
The Elks award was in recognition “not only of me as an individual, but of all volunteerism,” he said.
Harris is aware of the Elks’ 1977 rejection of Gipson, who earlier this year celebrated his 95th birthday at the Everett senior center named in his honor.
Gipson had lived in Everett 35 years, had been on the City Council five years, was a Boy Scout leader, Rotary Club member, past president of Everett High’s PTA and on General Hospital’s board when he tried to join the Elks, according to a 1997 article by then-Herald writers Bob Wodnik and Scott North.
Although black men could join the Elks by then, Gipson was rejected when an old rule allowed just three members to bar someone by anonymously dropping black balls into a ballot box. Gipson, who’d been sponsored by the club’s leader, was the only one of 67 applicants rejected at the time.
A 2006 graduate of Marysville Pilchuck High School, Harris remembers being teased about his skin color at Allen Creek Elementary School. “We were one of only two African-American families there,” he said. “One classmate was likening me to fecal matter” — in language that was more crude. “It affected how I saw myself.”
Still seeing racism today, Harris mentioned the beating of an African-American disc jockey at the Rec Room Bar and Grill north of Lynnwood in December. Suspects in the case had white supremacist emblems on patches, jackets and business cards.
Listing the principles of the Elks — charity, justice, brotherly love and fidelity — Kirschner said that “this year I attempted to reflect on each.” The organization has a scholarship program, outreach to veterans and other programs. A new effort will let active military members join the Everett lodge without cost.
Kirschner said she was proud and honored to present Harris to the group.
“When I look around the lodge, I should see our community — not all white people or all old people, but a reflection of our community,” she said.