A BRIEF HISTORY OF PRINCE HALL
By R. W. Raymond T. Coleman, FPS, Grand Historian
Originally published in the summer 2006 edition of The Phylaxis magazine
Prince Hall and fourteen other "men of color" on March 6, 1775 were initiated in a British Army Lodge, No. 441 of the Irish Registry by J. E. Batt, Worshipful Master, on Castle William Island (now Castle Island), in Boston Harbor.
When the British evacuated Boston along with its 38th British Foot and its Lodge #441, Prince Hall was given a "permit" to meet as a Lodge. However, not being a regular lodge, they were not allowed to make any new Masons. Their charge was only to "meet as a Lodge and to bury their dead in manner and in form." Under it African Lodge # 1 was organized on July 3, 1776 with Prince Hall as the Worshipful Master. Later (December 1782) Provincial Grand Master John Rowe gave them a permit to "walk on St. John's Day." Today, we would refer to this as a U.D. (Under Dispensation) lodge.
In 1784, Prince Hall petitioned the Grand Lodge of England, the premier (or mother) grand lodge of the world, for a warrant, or charter, to become a "regular masonic lodge."
On September 29, 1784, the Grand Lodge of England granted a charter to Prince Hall and his associates for African Lodge #459. They formally began work as a "regular" Masonic lodge on May 6, 1787, "with all the rights and privileges" of any Masonic lodge in the world.
Since African Lodge #459 was the only lodge in America to receive her charter directly from England, a close relationship developed between Prince Hall and the Grand Lodge of England. In 1791, he was appointed a Provincial Grand Master, and African Lodge #459 became a "mother" lodge.
In 1797 Prince Hall organized lodges in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island under the #459 Charter, and the march of Prince Hall lodges had begun. Today there are over 5,000 Prince Hall lodges with forty-seven grand lodges who can trace their origin to African Lodge #459, Boston, Mass. In these organizations are over 300,000 Master Masons. There are also adoptive, appendant and affiliated bodies including all houses in the Scottish Rite, the York Rite, the Order of the Eastern Star and the Shriners.
Prince Hall died on December 4, 1807, after serving thirty-one years as Worshipful Master of African Lodge. One year later (December, 1808) the brethren of the African Lodges of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, in a General Assembly of the Craft held in Boston, organized African Grand Lodge with Most Worshipful Brother Nero Prince as the Grand Master.
In memory and out of respect of Most Worshipful Brother Prince Hall, African Grand Lodge changed its name to Prince Hall Grand Lodge, Jurisdiction of Massachusetts, in 1847 and soon after formed its first three Massachusetts lodges since African Lodge was formed in 1776: Union #2 (February 11, 1848), Rising Sons of St. John #3 (February 17, 1848) and Celestial #4 (April 24, 1848).
The significance of the "regular" organizing of African Lodge #459 is evidenced today by the Grand Lodge of England adding African Lodge #459 to the legal origins of grand lodges seeking recognition. Previously a grand lodge had to trace its lineage to the Grand Lodges of England, Scotland or Ireland. Now England had added African Lodge #459 to that mix.
Prince Hall, Our Masonic Father
Who was Prince Hall? Where did he come from?
We don't know where Prince Hall was born. This is unfortunate but true.
We do know that he was the servant of William Hall of Boston beginning in 1749. We have two hints of the birthplace of Prince Hall: (1) he once referred to England as "home" and (2) he referred to his lodge as African Lodge, his school as African School and originated and/or signed legislative petitions of "Africans" in Boston.
Prince Hall was by no means a vain man; he left no memoirs, no autobiography, not even a painting! He did leave his "letter book," his "sermon book" and two "charges" to the brethren of African Lodge. But most importantly Prince Hall left a strong legacy not on paper, but in the minds, hearts and souls of those who followed him.
Let us try to paint a picture of this man with the little information we have.
Prince Hall married Sarah Ritchie on November 2, 1763. She died at the age of 24 on February 26, 1769. Both she and Prince Hall are buried at Copp's Hill Burying Grounds in the North End of Boston. As we paint this picture of Prince Hall, this is where it begins, with his marriage and the death of his wife.
The next thing we hear of Prince Hall is when, one month after the Boston Massacre, he was given his manumission paper by William Hall. It stated that "Prince Hall has lived with us for 21 years and served us well upon all occasions." The paper is very revealing as it states that Prince Hall "is no longer to be reckoned a slave, but has been always accounted as a freeman by us." From this statement by William Hall, it is clear that to him Prince Hall was a servant, not a slave. The statement "no longer to be reckoned a slave," was for the edification of others, not William Hall.
If he was, in fact, "accounted a freeman," why then was he given a manumission paper?
At that time in Boston, Black men were not allowed free access to the streets, etc., unless they could prove they were free. The penalty was flogging, imprisonment, or both. Prince Hall had no such proof until the manumission paper was issued. This gave him the freedom that he desired and needed. The paper was dated April 9, 1770.
At this time in our history, Blacks, in general, were often treated brutally by the citizens of Boston. They had no leader to speak in their behalf. We believe that Prince Hall was "called" to be that leader.
After his manumission, he became a leather dresser, and had a business near the old Massachusetts statehouse. It was there that he met many of the outstanding citizens of Boston and elsewhere, and it was there that he found that many of these were Masons.
We learned from bills of sale, now held by the Massachusetts Historical Society, and other records we have found, that among them were John Hancock, Joseph Warren, Jeremy Belknap and William Bentley.
From 1770 to 1775 we have no records of Prince Hall, except an occasional bill for work he had done; he was not able to gain any ground, publicly at least, in his quest for equal treatment for Blacks in Boston. This should not be a surprise. Who would listen to a lone Black voice; how could he get the populace to hear his plea?
In 1775, Prince Hall and 14 other men of color became Masons and it was at this point that Prince Hall began to make inroads in his desire to create opportunities for Blacks.
- January 13, 1777 he petitioned the legislature to free all slaves in Massachusetts.
- July 3, 1777 he petitioned George Washington to permit Blacks to enlist in the army.
- November 26, 1786 he offered Gov. Bowdoin the services of the members of African Lodge to keep the peace during Shay's Rebellion.
- January 4, 1787 Prince Hall petitioned the legislature to support a return to Africa movement.
- October 17, 1787 he petitioned the legislature for the education of Black children.
- February 27, 1787 he petitioned the legislature for the return of some kidnapped Black seamen (who happened to be Freemasons).
It wasn't until 1803 that Prince Hall was able to get a regular school established for Black Children in Boston, supported by African Lodge and others. The response to the school was so great that it eventually became a Boston Public School.
From the foregoing, it can be seen that Prince Hall accomplished much of what he set out to do, but he did it from a Masonic platform, as Master of African Lodge.
A quote from one of Prince Hall's Charges to African Lodge will give you an idea of the conditions he was trying to improve:
Patients, I say, because if we were not possessed of a great measure of it you could not bear up under the daily insults you meet within the streets of Boston; much more on public days of recreation, how you are shamefully abused and at such a degree that you may truly be said to carry your lives in your hands, and the arrows of death are flying about your heads; helpless old women have their clothes tom off their backs, even to exposing their nakedness.
A quote from another Charge:
Live and act as Masons, that you may die as Masons; let those despisers see, although many of us cannot read, yet by our searches and researches into men and things, we have supplied that defect; and if they will let us call ourselves a chartered lodge of just and lawful Masons; be always ready to give an answer to those that ask you a question; give the right hand of affection and fellowship to whom it justly belongs; let their colour and complexion be what it will, let their nation be what it may, for they are your brethren, and it is your indispensable duty so to do...
It might seem that Prince Hall was engaging in political and community activities that had no Masonic relevance. However, taken in the context of that time, we can see that his actions were akin to other Masonic leaders.
Does anyone argue with the involvement of Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere or George Washington in the politics of the day? Does anyone argue with St. John"s Lodge of Boston for their involvement in the Boston Tea Party (even though it was during the time of refreshment at their regular lodge meeting)?
Prince Hall was acting in the same way and manner as other Masonic leaders.
This legacy of Prince Hall has been brought forward, down through the ages, even to today, in our so-called modern society.
Let us be reminded that it was Black Masons who led the Americans of Color to their greatest triumphs and advancements in this country. It was the Black Masons who originated and supported the NAACP Legal Defense Fund as they fought and succeeded in their struggle to break down the walls of segregation in education, resulting in the Browne vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, and it was a Prince Hall Mason, Thurgood Marshall, who led that fight. It was, and is, the way we are to act as Masons, standing up for our fellow men. Masons were the first Blacks to hold political office and in many instances, were the clergy, educators. scientists, doctors, lawyers and labor leaders. It is the way we are, and will continue to be, as our first Grand Master, Prince Hall, taught us.