GALLIPOLIS — Prince Hall Freemasonry is a branch of North American freemasonry founded by Prince Hall on September 29, 1784 and composed predominantly of African Americans. To some Masonry is a mystery; to others it is a way of life. As Carl H. Claudy wrote, “Freemasonry begins teaching the profane long before they apply for membership. Her reputation is her first contact with the un-elect; she is secret; she is universal; she has enlisted the interest and the services of great and good men for hundreds of years.”
It was this reputation that attracted a man named Prince Hall to what supporters say is an ancient and honorable fraternity.
Details concerning the early life of Prince Hall are limited due to the lack of credible information. Masonic historians cannot agree on his place nor his date of birth. He is said to have been born between 1735 and 1748. Some say that he was born in Barbados of the West Indies, while others claim he may have been born in Africa. Prince Hall himself mentioned in his writings that “England was his homeland”, so there is a possibility he was born in England and brought over as a slave like many African descended people in the New England area.
Hall’s early years are also unclear. Historian Charles H. Wesley theorized that by the age of 11 or 12 years old, Prince Hall was enslaved or in the service of Boston, Mass., master leather tanner, William Hall, and by 1770, he was a free, literate man. It was through William Hall that Prince Hall learned how to process and dress leather. Having a reputation as a “free black” master leather tanner (and soap maker), these activities secured for Prince Hall a good livelihood, and by thrift and sobriety, he became the owner of real estate which qualified him as a freeman, a taxpayer, and a voter. The old records of Boston, Mass., show that Prince Hall voted for Governor and for members of the General Court.
Realizing that his early education was deficient, Prince Hall devoted himself to studies by night and day when free from daily activities. He was a student of the Bible, joined the Methodist Church, became one of its ministers with a congregation at Cambridge, and soon assembled what Masonic historian William H. Grimshaw called “a prosperous congregation.” Supporters say Prince Hall’s natural talent, ambition and his self-education won him by application to available books, and his connection with Methodism soon marked him as a leader of the small group of the free black population in the city of Boston, Mass. Prince Hall became outspoken about the conditions of black people in the Boston, Mass., community. He demanded the education of black children, the abolition of slavery and the inclusion of blacks in the government on the same terms as whites. As an abolitionist, he, together with several others, addressed a petition protesting the existence of slavery in the colony to the Massachusetts Legislature between 1773 and 1778.
Prince Hall encouraged enslaved and freed blacks to serve the American colonial military. In the late 1700s, Hall became interested in Freemasonry. He believed that if blacks were involved in the founding of the “new nation,” it would aid in the attainment of freedom for all blacks. Prince Hall urged John Hancock and Joseph Warren, American patriots and members of the Committee of Safety in 1775, to enlist blacks in the Colonial Army. Later Hall served as chairman of a delegation which conferred with General George Washington on the same purpose. Washington was doubtful of his authority to make such a radical innovation and referred the matter to the Continental Congress. The proposal to admit blacks troops into the Continental Army was declined.
Prince Hall was interested in the Masonic fraternity because he felt Freemasonry was founded upon ideas of liberty, equality and peace. Prior to the Revolutionary War, Prince Hall and 14 other free black men petitioned for admittance to the White Boston St. John’s Lodge. They were turned down. Having been rejected by colonial Freemasonry, on March 6, 1775, Hall and fifteen others sought and were initiated into Masonry at Castle William, Boston Harbor (now Fort Independence), in the British Military Lodge No. 441, working under the authority of the Grand Lodge of Ireland. This initiation and raising of them as Master Masons, was before Lexington, Concord, and the battles of the Revolutionary War. This record is contained in an old minute book of British Military Lodge No. 441, still in existence, which says in a brief note:
“March 6, 1775, Master Batt made these Masons: Prince Hall, Cyrus Jonbus, Peter Best, Cuff Bufform, John Carter, Peter Freeman, Forten Howard, Prince Rees, Thomas Sanderson, Boston Smith, Cato Spears, Prince Taylor, Benjamin Tiber, Richard Tilley.”
When the British forces evacuated Boston on March 17, 1775, the Master of British Military Lodge No. 441, Brother Batt, gave to their black brethren a “Permit” to meet as a lodge. This authority was granted under an established custom and one frequently used by military lodges.
Under this “Permit” African Lodge No. 1 was formed on July 3, 1775, and there is ample evidence of its regular meetings until 1787. The black Masons had limited power; they could meet as a lodge, take part in the Masonic procession on St. John’s Day, and bury their dead with Masonic rites but could not confer Masonic degrees or perform any other essential functions of a fully operating Lodge. Unable to create a charter, they applied to the Grand Lodge of England. The Grand Master of the Mother Grand Lodge of England, H.R.H., The Duke of Cumberland, issued a Charter for African Lodge No. 1 (later renamed African Lodge No. 459), on September 29, 1784. The Charter was taken from the Grand Lodge of England and delivered to Captain James Scott, Master of the sailing ship “Neptune.” Captain Scott was the Brother-in-law of John Hancock. The Charter reached Boston on April 29, 1787. African Lodge No. 1 (later No. 459), was the first black Masonic Lodge in the United States. Due to the African Lodge’s popularity and Prince Hall’s leadership, the Grand Lodge of England made Prince Hall a Provincial Grand Master on January 27, 1791. His responsibilities include reporting on the condition of lodges in the Boston area.
Prince Hall entered “That House Not Made With Hands” on December 4, 1807. He is buried in Copps Hill burial ground in Boston, Massachusetts; his grave is marked by a broken pillar. On June 24, 1808 the African Grand Lodge was organized. It included the Boston, Philadelphia and Providence Lodges. The African Grand Lodge declared its independence from the United Grand Lodge of England and all other lodges in 1827. In 1847, the African Grand Lodge renamed to the “Prince Hall Grand Lodge,” in honor of its founder. Since that time, every state Black Grand Lodge has incorporated Prince Hall’s name into their title in honor of their fore bearer.
Prince Hall was considered the Father of African Freemasonry. He said of civic activities, “My brethren let us pay all due respect to all who God had put in places of honor over us: do justly and be faithful to them that hire you and treat them with the respect they may deserve; but worship no man. Worship God, this is your duty as Christians and as Masons.”
For more information, contact Chris Howell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Submitted by Chris Howell