Prince Hall, Boston Abolitionist and Freemason
BY BILL BAILEY ON SEPTEMBER 2, 2011 •
Prince Hall (c.1735 – December 7, 1807), was a tireless abolitionist and a leader of the free black community in Boston. Hall tried to gain New England’s enslaved and free blacks a place in some of the most crucial spheres of society, Freemasonry, education and the military. He is considered the founder of “Black Freemasonry” in the United States, known today as Prince Hall Freemasonry. Hall formed the African Grand Lodge of North America. Prince Hall was unanimously elected its Grand Master and served until his death in 1807. He also lobbied tirelessly for education rights for black children and a back-to-Africa movement. Many historians regard Prince Hall as one of the more prominent African American leaders throughout the early national-period of the United States.
The details surrounding Prince Hall’s life involving abolitionism and masonry are more certain than his early life. He attempted various approaches to advance black rights. He was politically active, petitioning for the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts and fought for laws to protect free blacks in Massachusetts from kidnapping by slave traders. He proposed a back-to-Africa movement and pressed for equal education and funding for black and white school children, even operating a school in his own home. He showed his prowess in debate early on, citing Christian teachings in a petition that spoke out against slavery to fellow Christians in a predominantly church-attending Massachusetts legislature.
After the American Revolution ended, many African Americans who served in the ranks or as aids during the war expected equality from the whites whom they had stood next to against the British. Prince Hall soon emerged in the high profile realm of politics and was instrumental in proposing several pieces of legislation that would improve the lives of African Americans throughout New England . However, the situation soon became apparent that the African American place in society had budged little throughout the duration of the war. In addition to proposing legislation, Hall also hosted a variety of different events for African Americans including theater events as well as educational forums. Prince Hall’s role of an educator of the African American youth as well as a politician may very well have been just as instrumental as his foundation of the African American Free Masonry Lodge.
Hall urged the enlistment of both enslaved and freed blacks for the attempt to free the American colonies from British control. Hall was concerned with the development of the colonies if they gained independence. He was certain that involvement of blacks in the construction of the new nation would be the first step toward the complete freedom for all blacks. The Massachusetts Committee of Safety declined Hall’s proposal to allow blacks the opportunity to fight for the colonies. Prince Hall and supporters of his cause petitioned the Committee by comparing Britain’s ruling of the colonies with the enslavement of blacks. A proclamation from England guaranteed blacks that if they enlisted in the British army instead of the Continental they would be freed at the end of the war. Only after the British Army began to use blacks in their troops did the Colonial Army change its decision to block admission of blacks into the military.
It is very likely that because of his strong support for the revolutionary cause Prince Hall had served in the Massachusetts militia during the American Revolutionary War. It is again unclear definitively whether he served or not since at least six men from Massachusetts who were named “Prince Hall” served in the military during the war.
The Masonic fraternity was extremely attractive to free blacks of the eighteenth century. Prince Hall and his followers saw Freemasonry as a platform where racial differences did not exist. The Masonic ideals greatly appealed to Hall, especially the beliefs in liberty, equality and peace. Prior to the American Revolutionary War, Prince Hall and fourteen other free black men petitioned for the admittance to the white Boston St. John’s Lodge. They were turned away. Some whites were irate of the audacity for blacks applying to be Masons. Due to the resistance of colonial Masonries, Hall looked elsewhere and on March 6, 1775, Hall and fifteen other free blacks were initiated into the Masonry by members of the Irish Military Lodge No. 441. The Lodge was attached to the British forces stationed in Boston. Hall and the other freedmen founded African Lodge No. 1 with Prince Hall named as Grand Master.
A problem quickly arose for black men wishing to become Masons in the newly formed United States: the members of a Lodge must agree unanimously in an anonymous vote to accept a petitioner to receive the degrees. As a consequence of the unanimity requirement, if just one member of a lodge did not want black men in his Lodge, his vote was enough to cause the petitioner’s rejection. This sentiment can be seen in the letter of General Albert Pike to his brother in 1875 where he says, “ I am not inclined to mettle in the matter. I took my obligations to white men, not to Negroes. When I have to accept Negroes as brothers or leave Masonry, I shall leave it.” Thus, although exceptions did exist, Masonic Lodges and Grand Lodges in the United States generally excluded African Americans. And since the vote is conducted anonymously, this created a second problem: since no one knew who had voted against the applicant, it was impossible to identify a member as pursuing a policy of racism. This allowed even a tiny number of prejudiced members to effectively deny membership to black petitioners, and in some cases even exclude black men who had legitimately been made Masons in integrated jurisdictions. Thus there arose a system of racial segregation in American Masonry, which remained in place until the 1960s and which persists in some jurisdictions even to this day.