Prince Hall – Masonic Leader

By Henry M. Holden     

Prince Hall (1738-1807) was an emancipated back man and abolitionist who lived in Boston. During the Revolutionary War for Independence, (1775-1783) he fought alongside white colonial men. As a reward for that service, he was given his freedom. Hall just needed to look around to realize that, even though he was free, he was not as free as a white man.

There were various degrees of freedom. So, he looked around and wondered who were the free and influential men of his day? They were all Masons, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington to name a few. So, Hall decided that joining the Masons was his best chance of getting someone to help him realize what it really meant to be a free man. 

At this time, in the colonies, there were 14 Masonic Temples. He applied to each one and each one denied him entry and membership. In a stroke of intense irony, it was a British temple that admitted him. Hall now had an advantage.  Now that he was a Mason, along with the membership came the secret handshake, secret symbols, and access to places that, even though he was not a member of the current temple, he was amazed that he was nonetheless accepted as a genuine Mason. 

He would never have access to these places if he was simply a free black man. He used his Masonic status to create the first Prince Hall Free Mason Society. The Society was founded on September 19, 1784, just one year after the Revolutionary War ended. Today it has the oldest and largest (300,000) initiated black members in the United States.

Prior to the American Revolutionary War, Prince Hall and other free black men petitioned for admittance to the all-white Boston St. John’s Lodge. They were refused. The Masonic fraternity was attractive to some free blacks like Prince Hall because free masonry was founded on the ideals of liberty, equality, and peace. 

Having been rejected by colonial American Freemasonry, Hall and 14 others sought and were initiated into Masonry through Lodge No. 441 of the Grand Lodge of Ireland, on March 6, 1775. The Lodge was attached to the British forces stationed in Boston. Hall and other free black men founded African Lodge No. 1 and he was elected Master.

When men wished to become Masons in the new nation the existing members of the Lodge had to vote unanimously to accept the petitioner. If any one white member voted against a black petitioner, that person would be rejected. In a letter written by General Albert Pike to his brother in 1875, he said, “I am not inclined to mettle in the matter. I took my obligations to white men, not to Negroes. When I must accept Negroes as brothers or leave Masonry, I shall leave it.” 

Masonic and Grand Lodges generally excluded African Americans. Since the votes were anonymous, it was impossible to identify the member who had voted against accepting a black member. The effect was the black men who had legitimately been made Masons in integrated jurisdictions could be rejected.

The black Masons therefore had limited power. After the war, when the military Masonic lodges left the area, they were given the authority to meet as a lodge, take part in the Masonic procession on St. John’s Day, and bury their dead with Masonic rites. They could not confer Masonic degrees or perform any other essential functions of a fully operating Lodge.

On March 22, 1797, Prince Hall organized a lodge in Philadelphia, and called it African Lodge #459, under Prince Hall’s Charter. They later received their own charter. On June 25, 1797, Hall organized the African Lodge (later known as Hiram Lodge #3) at ProvidenceRhode Island.

Author and historian James Sidbury said, “Prince Hall and those who joined him to found Boston’s African Masonic Lodge built a fundamentally new “African” movement on an established institutional foundation. Within that movement they asserted emotional, mythical, and genealogical links to the continent of Africa and its peoples.”

By 1797, there were at least 34 members in the Boston black lodge, but still the lodge was overlooked by white Boston Masons. Integration with the American white Masons was not imminent. Since they were unable to attain integration, the blacks concentrated on recognition from white Masons that, because black Masonry descending from Prince Hall of Massachusetts and had received its charter from the English Grand Lodge, it was legitimate and not “clandestine” and therefore was entitled to all Masonic rights, such as intervisitation 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.

After the death of Prince Hall, on December 4, 1807, the brethren were eager to form a Grand Lodge. On June 24, 1808, they organized the African Grand Lodge with the lodges from Philadelphia, Providence, and Boston, which was later renamed the Prince Hall Grand Lodge, in his honor.

The Lodge was struck from the rolls in 1813, and unable to create a charter, they applied to the Premier Grand Lodge of England. The Grand Master of the Premier Grand Lodge of England, the Duke of Cumberland, issued a charter for African Lodge No. 459, later renamed African Lodge No. 1. The lodge was the country’s first African Masonic lodge.

 

 

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