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.
When the British Army left Boston in 1776, 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. It took nine years of petitioning white American Lodges before they appealed to the less prejudiced lodges in England. They applied to the Grand Lodge of England for a warrant March 2, 1784. While waiting to hear from England, Prince Hall applied to mainstream Masonic authorities for a temporary full warrant in the meantime. They were unsuccessful. However, they were granted a second permit to continue with their original, though limited, operations that covered the period until Hall heard back from the Grand Lodge. The first meeting place was a lodge room they prepared in “Golden Fleece” which was located near Boston Harbor. They later met at Kirby Street Temple in Boston.
Eventually, the grand master of the Mother Grand Lodge of England, H. R. H. The Duke of Cumberland, issued a charter for the African Lodge No. 1 later renamed African Lodge no. 459 September 20, 1784. Shortly after, black masons elsewhere in the United States began contacting Prince Hall with requests to establish Lodges in their own cities. Consistent with European Masonic practices at the time, African Lodge granted their requests and served as Mother Lodge to new black Lodges in Newport, Rhode Island in 1799, Philadelphia, Providence and New York.
By 1779 there were at least thirty-four members in the Boston black lodge, a sizable number that was overlooked by mainstream Boston Masons. Unfortunately, integration with the American white Masons was not impending. The dream that black Masonry and white Masonry would become simply Freemasonry had to be either abandoned or, at least, indefinitely postponed. Instead, the blacks concentrated on recognition from the whites. Recognition required that white Masons state that black Masonry, descending from Prince Hall of Massachusetts, was legitimate and not “clandestine.” That it had received its charter from the English Grand Lodge and was thus entitled to all Masonic rights such as inter-visitation between black and white lodges without prejudice. Many Grand Masters hoped that ultimately recognition would lead to integration but they knew it would be a long time before that happened.
In 1791, black Freemasons met in Boston and formed the African Grand Lodge of North America. Prince Hall was unanimously elected its Grand Master and served until his death in 1807. (The claim that he was appointed Provincial Grand Master for North America in 1791 appears to have been fabricated.) The African Grand Lodge was later renamed the Prince Hall Grand Lodge a year after Hall’s death, in his honor. In 1827 the African Grand Lodge declared its independence from the United Grand Lodge of England, as the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts had done 45 years earlier. It also stated its independence from all of the white Grand Lodges in the United States.
Today, predominantly black Prince Hall Grand Lodges exist in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Liberia, governing Prince Hall Lodges throughout the world. Hall’s legacy as a Freemason and a leader has survived with the lodges. As a Georgia Mason noted, the original local lodge rules written by Prince Hall and his followers in the late 18th century were the first set of regulations drafted by colored men for self government in the United States and Masonry ever since has striven to teach its members ‘the fundamentals of central government’ which is the basis of American life.” After nearly two centuries of controversy, the Grand Lodge of England was asked to decide the matter of Prince Hall Masonic legitimacy. Carefully studying the records, the Grand Lodge of England concluded that the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Massachusetts was indeed entitled to Masonic recognition and this against the tradition that, per state, only one recognized Masonic body should exist.
Prince Hall is recognized as a black leader due to an unrelenting effort to engage the Massachusetts’ legislature in the cause for blacks. He repeatedly joined groups requesting the legislative body to end slavery in the state. He also petitioned for state support for black schools, and even opened one in his own home. As with many of his previous appeals, this one went unattended, and yet, his emancipatory efforts helped create an enduring tradition of Black activism.
Hall put much of his energy into education. Literate himself, he believed that education was an extremely important skill to teach black children to get them on even footing with whites. He is known for speeches and petitions he gave on furthering his cause. Prince Hall’ “1792 Charge”, “1797 Charge” and his 1787 Petition are his most recognizable writings. Hall had a way with words that could lead many to follow in his strong beliefs. In a speech given to the Boston African Masonic Lodge, Hall stated, “My brethren, let us not be cast down under these and many other abuses we at present labour under: for the darkest is before the break of day….Let us remember what a dark day it was with our African brethren, six years ago, in the French West Indies. Nothing but the snap of the whip was heard, from morning to evening”. Halls’ 1792 Charge, focused on the abolition of slavery in his home state of Massachusetts. He addressed how United States’ Black Leaders were important to the shaping of the country and unity. In his 1797 Charge, Hall spoke more about the treatment and hostility that blacks faced while living in the United States. He also gave recognition to the black revolutionaries in the Haitian Revolution.
A strong advocate for black equality, Prince Hall was also involved in the back-to-Africa movement. In the 1780s Hall approached the legislature once again requesting funds for voluntary emigration to Africa. In January of 1773, Prince Hall and seventy three other African American delegates presented an emigration plea to the Massachusetts Senate. This plea explained that the African Americans would be better suited to the warm climate of Africa and that they would be able to endure the lifestyle. However this failed. Hall felt that it was the most appropriate solution in order for blacks to gain some semblance of equality. Hall fought even harder for the movement when a group of freed black men were captured and detained while making their way to Africa. With all the information that Prince Hall had received he believed that blacks would be well suited back in Africa as leaders by using lessons they learned in America. However, due to a lack of support and enthusiasm for the movement, Hall decided to turn his efforts towards equality in education.
Education played a significant role in Prince Hall’s life. As a slave, Hall was taught to read and write by his master. Some northern slave-owners believed it was a good idea to teach their slaves to become literate. By experiencing how crucial education was, Hall used his leadership to ask the Massachusetts congress for a school program for black children. Hall cited the same platform for fighting the American Revolution of “Taxation without Representation.”  Although Hall’s arguments were logical, his two attempts at passing legislation through the Massachusetts Senate both resulted in failure. Denied equal funding, Hall was not to be deterred and eventually started a school program for free black children out of his own home. Prince Hall emphasized classical education and Liberal Arts.
Prince Hall is buried in the Historic Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in Boston along with other notable Bostonians from the colonial era. Also, thousands of African Americans who lived in the community at the base of Copp’s Hill are buried in unmarked graves. Prince Hall’s grave is marked, and the inscription reads:
“Here lies ye body of Prince Hall, first Grand Master of the colored Grand Lodge in Mass. Died Dec. 7, 1807″
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19. City of Boston Copp's Hill Burying Ground]
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