History of Prince Hall Freemasonry Research by Dennis M. Ison
Prince Hall was the first man of African descent to become a Master Mason in America. He was initiated in Boston, Massachusetts, some 230 years ago, was the founder of the first Negro subordinate Lodge of legitimate Masons in America, and was chartered under the name of African Lodge No. 1, some 221 years ago. He formed the first Negro Grand Lodge of Masons in America called African Grand Lodge No. 459 (whose name was later changed to Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge) constituted in Boston, Massachusetts, 218 years ago. Many of us at one time or another have heard tidbits of information down through the years about Prince Hall, but actually there is very little written about this great man. We have prepared a chronology that includes some recognized facts about Prince Hall as well as dates of historical significance.
Prince Hall was born at Bridgetown, Barbados, West Indies, about September 12, 1748 (no record of birth certificate). His father, Thomas Prince Hall, was an Englishman and his mother was a French citizen of African descent. His father was a leather dresser and both his parents were known as being of excellent character and good moral fiber. His greatest desire growing up was to visit America. His dream finally came true in February of 1765. When at the age of 17, he worked his passage on a ship bound for America. The ship arrived in Boston, Massachusetts in March of 1765.
Hall found employment as a leather-worker, a trade learned from his father. Eight year later, he acquired real estate which qualified him to vote. He opened his own leather goods shop, "The Golden Fleece", which became successful and was religiously inclined which later led him to become a preacher in the Methodist Church with a Charge at Cambridge. He was well read himself and his Letter Book shows that he was familiar with the works of Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen and other Fathers of the early Church. He corresponded with, "Selina, Lady Huntingdon (1707-1791)", the head of the Calvinistic Methodists who trained and ordained Methodists ministers, and was known as the 'Countess of Huntingdon's Connection'.
As an individual, Prince Hall, was among the earliest of African American Leaders to take a stand for the rights and liberation of Black people in this country:
On January 13, 1777, Hall and eight other black men signed a petition requesting the Massachusetts State Legislature to abolish slavery, being that it is incompatible to any patriotic cause. Hall's signature was one of four belonging to Masons, whose names topped the document. The petition adopted the same terminology used by the nation's founding fathers to state their case for freedom from Britain. It was also similar to one sent to Governor Thomas Gage, May 25, 1774, which had been rejected by the British Governor. The State Legislators referred the petition to the Congress of the Confederation.
Hall also proposed that the State organize a back-to-Africa movement in a petition of January 4, 1787. Leading a committee of 12 members from the African Lodge, Hall proposed that the State secure funds for sending Massachusetts black population to a point on the African coast. The proposal also called for a colonization effort that would result in mutual benefit to both parties, including extensive future trade between the two States. The petition, which appears to be the first major statement on African colonization by black Americans, was defeated in The State Legislature.
On October 17, 1787, Hall petitioned the State Legislature to provide Education for black children. Blacks were taxed on an equal basis with whites, but only white children received State supported Education. The petition failed, and Hall was equally unsuccessful in obtaining local support for black Public Schools.
Prince Hall was successful, however, in helping to end the slave trade in Massachusetts. In early February 1788, three free black Bostonians, one a Mason, were lured aboard a ship by a captain promising work. Instead, the men were kidnapped, shipped to the Caribbean, and sold as slaves. In a petition attacking the slave trade, Hall and 21 other Masons stated their outrage at the seizure of their fellow citizens.
The end of slavery in Massachusetts has been attributed to the ratification of the Constitution of 1780, a 1783 Judicial ruling, and the State Legislature passed an act on March 26, 1788, designed to prohibit the slave trade within the State's borders and to provide recourse for the families of those abducted. Sufficient pressure was applied by Governor John Hancock and the French consul in Boston to obtain the release of the men from the French Island of St. Bartholomew. African Lodge No. 1, organized a celebration to mark their return home in July 1788.
n 1800, Hall made a second request to the selectmen of Boston to acquire a building for a Black School. After another refusal, Prince Hall offered his own home for the school, the first Black School in Boston, Massachusetts. A pair of Harvard College students served as teachers until 1806. At that point, increased enrollment forced a move to larger facilities, which were provided by the African Society House on Belknap Street. Public records from the time show that Hall was both a taxpayer and regular voter. He was politically active and rallied his fellow Masons and the Boston community at large to support black causes in which he was involved.
On March 6, 1775, Prince Hall and fourteen other men of African descent, Cyrus Johnson, Bueston Slinger, Prince Rees, John Canton, Peter Freeman, Benjamin Tiler, Duff Ruform, Thomas Sanderson, Prince Rayden, Cato Spain, Boston Smith, Peter Best, Forten Howard and Richard Titley, were initiated, passed, and raised into Irish Military Lodge No. 441.
This Military Lodge was attached to the 38th Foot Regiment of the British Army that was garrisoned at Castle Williams (now Fort Independence) Boston Harbor, prior to the coming war with England by the 13 Colonies. This Lodge granted Prince Hall and his brethren authority to meet as a Lodge, to go in procession on St. John's Day, and as a Lodge to bury their dead, but they could not confer degrees nor perform any other Masonic 'work'.
For nine years these brethren, together with others who had received the degrees elsewhere, assembled and enjoyed limited privileges as masons. Records show that a similar permit was granted by Provincial Grand Master over North America John Rowe in 1776. On January 1, 1776, General George Washington's troops raised the new American flag on the liberty pole at Prospect Hill near the American General's headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
On July 3, 1776, African Lodge No. 1, became the first African Lodge in America. Finally, on June 30, 1784, Prince Hall petitioned the Grand Lodge of England, through Worshipful Master William Moody of Brotherly Love Lodge No. 55, (London, England) for a warrant of Constitution. Under authority of His Royal Highness, Henry Frederick, Duke of Cumberland, Grand Master of the "Most Ancient and Honorable Society of Free and Accepted Masons," a Charter was granted to Prince Hall. The Charter was prepared and issued on September 29, 1784, although it would be three years before African Lodge No. 1 actually received it.
This was due to the fact that the brother to whom the matter was entrusted failed to call for it. It was delivered, however, on the 29th day of April 1787. The Charter was delivered by James Scott, Captain of the ship Neptune and brother-in-law of John Hancock. (Hancock was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and President of the Continental Congress).
On May 6, 1787, at "The Golden Fleece", Hall's leather shop, on Water Street in Boston. By virtue of the authority of this Charter, African Lodge No. 1 was established as African Lodge No. 459 according to the register in England and began work as a regular Masonic body. Prince Hall was appointed Provincial Grand Master for North America on January 27, 1791, presumably in place of John Rowe who died, by His Royal Highness George IV, Prince of Wales.
On June 24, 1791, the African Grand Lodge of North America was organized in Boston, Massachusetts. Its first officers were Prince Hall - Grand Master, Nero Prince - Deputy Grand Master, Cyrus Forbes - Grand Senior Warden, George Middleton - Grand Junior Warden, Prince Taylor - Grand Secretary, Petter Best - Grand Treasurer. This was one year before the organization of the United Grand Lodge of Massachusetts (Caucasian). In 1827, 45 years after the (Caucasian) Grand Lodge of Massachusetts had done so, African Grand Lodge of Boston declared itself independent of the Grand Lodge of England.
The question of extending Masonry arose when Absalom Jones of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania appeared in Boston. He was an ordained Episcopal priest and a mason who was interested in establishing a Masonic Lodge in Philadelphia. Before 1815, exclusive territorial jurisdiction was not an active and recognized doctrine of English Masonic Custom. African Lodges were constituted in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and New York under the authority of the charter of African Lodge No. 459. It was typical for new Lodges to be established in this manner in those days.
Prince Hall, having the authority to issue warrants on the same basis as Masters of Lodges in Europe. He established African Grand Lodge No. 459 of Boston, African Lodge No. 459a of Philadelphia on March 22, 1797 and Hiram Lodge No. 3 of Providence, Rhode Island on June 24, 1797. The African Grand Lodge was not organized until 1808 when the 3 respective Lodges met in New York. The second African Lodge of Negro Masons was located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Lombard Street. The first Worshipful Master was Absalom Jones and the treasurer was Richard Allen the founder of African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church.
Prince Hall died in Boston on December 7, 1807, after a four week fight with pneumonia that he developed from a bad cold he caught while on one of many errands of mercy visiting the sick. The Massachusetts Congressional Library shows the actual date of Prince Hall's death was Friday, December 4, 1807. Some sources state a belief that the engraving on his head stone was done several years after his death, hence using the date from the newspapers.
Funeral Rites, in accord with Masonic Rites, were performed one week later. Nero Prince became Grand Master and as a memorial to our beloved brother and by an act of the General Assembly of the Craft in 1808, the African Grand Lodge of North America was changed to the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge. Prince Hall is buried in Copps Hill Cemetery Boston, Massachusetts. The site is marked by a broken column; a monument erected 88 years after his death by the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Massachusetts.
The original Charter of African Lodge No. 459 of Boston is in the possession of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Massachusetts and is the only known original 18th Century Charter in existence issued to any American Lodge by the (Modern) Grand Lodge of England, today known as "The United Grand Lodge of England". It proudly represents the indisputable legitimacy and regularity of 53 Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodges and Prince Hall Affiliated bodies.
In conclusion, "Who was Prince Hall?" An organizer of African American Masons in the United States, an abolitionist, a believer in the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of man, and a spokesman in regard to all of the conditions which made the circumstances of Blacks in America intolerable and non-productive, in order to be equal citizens of the United States with all the privileges entitled to any human being. Born in obscurity, Prince Hall literally worked himself free of his lowly beginnings. Through diligence and effort he cultivated his abilities, then used them to help others do the same. His name lives on in the title of the oldest and largest, most well-regarded Black Fraternal Order in the World, "Prince Hall Masons".
This history was published in the 2007 Spring issue of the Masonic Journal