Prince Hall Freemasonry

Prince Hall

 

The Beginning of Prince Hall Freemasonry

 

The History of the Prince Hall Masons is exceptional and very interesting, especially given the time in this country that the Fraternity was founded. On March 6, 1775, Prince Hall and fourteen freed Black men, Cyrus Forbes, Bristol Stenzer, Thomas Sanderson, Prince Taylor, Cato Gardner, Boston Smith, Peter Best, Fortune Howard, Prince Reed, John Carter, Peter Freeman, Benjamin Tyler, Cuff Bufform, and Richard Tilledge, were made Masons by Worshipful Master John Batt of Army Lodge No. 441 of the 38th regiment, foot, of the British Army. The Army Lodge's Charter was under the Grand Lodge of Ireland Constitution. As a new Master Mason, Prince Hall petitioned membership in the Masonic Lodges, headed by colonists but all his petitions were rejected. When the British Army left Boston in 1776, this Lodge, No. 441, granted Prince Hall and his brethren authority to meet as African Lodge No. 1 (Under Dispensation), 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 eight years these brethren, together with others who had received their degrees elsewhere, assembled and enjoyed their limited privileges as Masons.

 

Thirty-three masons were listed on the rolls of African Lodge No.1 on January 14th, 1779. Finally on March 2, 1784, Prince Hall petitioned the Grand Lodge of England, through a Worshipful Master of a subordinate Lodge in London (William Moody of Brotherly Love Lodge No. 55) for a warrant or charter. On September 29, 1784 a charter was issued to the African Lodge, making it a regular lodge, with all the rights and privileges of any regular lodge in the world.

The Warrant to African Lodge No. 459 of Boston is the most significant and highly prized document known to the Prince Hall Masonic fraternity. It was delivered in Boston on April 29, 1787 by Captain James Scott, brother-in-law of John Hancock and master of the Neptune. African Lodge of Boston became the "Mother Lodge" of the Prince Hall Family.

All of this took place at a time in American History when it wasn't safe for Prince Hall and the fourteen other Black men to be speaking with, much less asking for favors of, the British. But it was also a time when free Black men very much needed a means by which to advance the cause of Black equality. Boston, Massachusetts was a major port for selling slaves in the North. Black Codes were enacted by all the colonies curtailing the movement of Blacks, both free and slave, especially after dark. Prince Hall looked to the Fraternal Order of Free and Accepted Masons because the chief purpose of Freemasonry is benevolence and charity to all mankind. Hall was convinced that Freemasonry's ideals for the betterment of man made it an ideal organization to advance the cause of Black equality in the colonies.

Today, the Prince Hall Masonic Order spans across all fifty United States of America as well as lodges in Canada, the West Indies, the Bahamas, Europe, and Asia. There are over 250,000 Prince Hall Masons worldwide, working in more than 5,000 lodges who can trace their roots to African Lodge No. 459. {The Prince Hall Grand Lodge.

Who was Prince Hall?

Prince Hall, born in 1738, was the first Black initiated into Freemasonry in America. A self-educated businessman and a leather crafter, he became of the most prominent citizens in Boston, Massachusetts during the Revolutionary period. At one time, Hall was also one of the best caterers in New England. Because Blacks were not allowed to attend school in the early 18th century, Prince Hall was self-educated. From 1749 to 1770, he was a servant to William Hall, who "freed" him a month after the Boston Massacre.

When was Prince Hall initiated as a Freemason?

Prince Hall was initiated as a mason, along with 14 other men of color, on March 6, 1775, into Lodge No. 441 of Irish Registry attached to the 38th British Foot Infantry. The initiation took place on Castle William Island in Boston Harbor.

What is the mission and purpose of the Prince Hall organization?

The Prince Hall Masonic Order, the oldest continuously operating African American organization in the country (older than the Black Church) and the largest fraternal organization started by Blacks in America, is devoted to social and economic improvement for Black people. Today, Prince Hall Masonry spans all fifty of the United States, as well as having numerous lodges in Canada, the West Indies, the Bahamas, Europe, and Asia. Over 250,000 Prince Hall Masons worldwide, working in more than 5,000 lodges, can trace their roots to African Lodge No. 459.

Why was it founded?

Prince Hall was a confidant of Harvard University Professor and mason Dr. William Bently, and Dr. Jeremy Belknap, who were one of the founders of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Both men were instrumental in introducing him to other leading Boston citizens and notable masons such as John Hancock, Paul Revere, and Benjamin Franklin. Prince Hall was a man of vision—he saw that masons got things done—they were movers and shakers in Boston and as far away as France. Many abolitionists, mayors, scientists, as well as late 18th century revolutionists were masons.

At the time, free Black men needed a means to advance the cause of Black equality. Boston was a major port for selling slaves in the North. Black codes had been enacted by all the colonies curtailing the movement of Blacks, both free and slave—especially after dark. Prince Hall looked to the Fraternal Order of Free and Accepted Masons because the chief purpose of Freemasonry is benevolence and charity to all mankind. Prince Hall's belief in unity, honesty, and the need for secrecy was the entrée into freedom for Blacks. Hall was convinced that Freemasonry's vision for the betterment of mankind made it an ideal organization to advance the cause of equality in the colonies. As a mason, Prince Hall believed he could help his people gain stature, freedom, and full citizenship in America.

What is the historical significance of the Prince Hall Masons?

The history of Prince Hall Masons is exceptional, especially given the era the Lodge was founded in. Blacks were not allowed to become masons on American shores; in fact, American masons still had slaves. After numerous rejections, Prince Hall decided to seek jurisdiction from abroad and petitioned the Grand Lodge of England. The charter was issued to the African Lodge, making it a regular lodge, with all the rights and privileges of any lodge in the world. This first African Lodge was the only lodge in the United States that received a charter directly from England.

The first lodge in America was St. John's Lodge. It was organized by Henry Price, Provincial Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England, F. & A.M. St. John's first met on July 30, 1733.

The Warrant to what became the African Lodge of Boston, designated No. 459, is the most significant and highly prized document known to the Prince Hall Masonic Fraternity. It was delivered in Boston on April 29, 1787 by Captain James Scott, brother-in-law of John Hancock and master of the Neptune. The African Lodge of Boston became the "Mother Lodge" of the Prince Hall Family, from which all other Prince Hall Masons trace their roots. The Lodge was formally organized on May 6, 1787.

In the late 1700s, given that Blacks (free or enslaved) had few rights, Freemasonry was the only legitimate vehicle to advance Blacks in America. As a mason, Prince Hall was able to propose significant petitions to the Massachusetts legislature and other bodies. Hall presented at least eight petitions, including these: abolishing the slave trade in Massachusetts, providing education to Black children, permitting Blacks to enlist in the army, allowing the return of Blacks to Africa, and seeking the return of kidnapped Black seamen to Boston.

One of Prince Hall's greatest legacies was in education. He started the first Black public school in Massachusetts — a fact little known to many. This school originated in his house and later moved to the African Meeting House in Boston.

Long before Garveyism, Prince Hall introduced the "back to Africa movement." The first colony and settlement in Africa, which later became Liberia, was derived from a group whose members were from the first Prince Hall Lodge from Providence, RI, which was under the jurisdiction of Massachusetts. The first President of Liberia was a mason and, though it was many years later, not far removed from the influence of Prince Hall.

Participation in Freemasonry has played a significant role in developing Black leadership, unity, and camaraderie. The Brotherhood "makes good men better" through increased self-esteem, leadership, and self-discipline. Notable Black mason leaders have included Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. Dubois, and Nelson Mandela. Why was there a re-enactment to be held on Castle Island? The initiation of the 15 original Black masons took place on Castle William Island in Boston Harbor.

More Documented Facts About Prince Hall
Prince Hall married five times - according to the official records of the City of Boston. The details are:
(1) 2 November 1763, Sarah Ritchie (or Ritchery).
(2) 22 August 1770, Florah Gibbs.
(3) 14 August 1783, Affee Moody.
(4) 28 June 1798, Nabby Ayrauly.
(5) 28 June 1804, Zilpha (?Sylvia) Johnson.
Zilpha, or Sylvia, Johnson was Prince Hall's executrix in an estate amounting to $47.22. She herself died in Boston in 1836. So far as is known there were no children from any of the marriages.

Prince Hall is buried in Copp's Hill Burying Ground in Boston in the same grave as his first wife. The monumental stone carries the inscription:
Here lies ye body of Sarah Ritchery, wife of Prince Hall, died February the 26th, 1769, aged 24 years.
On the back of the stone, added some time later, is the inscription:
Here lies the body of Prince Hall, First Grand Master of the Colored Grand Lodge of Masons in Mass., died Dec 7, 1807. (Actually was Dec. 4, 1807)
Whoever cut this last inscription took as the date of death the date of the announcement in the newspaper (7 December) and not the actual date of death (4 December). It is a little curious that Prince Hall should be buried in the grave of his first wife; one would have thought that his last wife might have had other ideas, but perhaps Prince Hall owned the plot in the cemetery. This cannot be checked for the interment records are missing.

A private re-enactment ceremony, took place on April 24, 2004, gathered Prince Hall Masons from across the globe to honor their history and re-connect. For the ceremony, the masons dresses in period costume to pay tribute to Prince Hall and the other brave men who chose the route of Freemasonry to help their people and to have a legitimate vehicle that would be able to advance and enrich the lives of generations to follow.

Note: The above accounts of Prince Hall Freemasonry were rewritten from research materials by P.M. Robert N. Campbell, MWPHGL of Missouri’s Historian and is partially derived from a Boston Newspaper article based on research assembled by the M.W.P.H. G.L. of Massachusetts for the 2nd Bi-Annual African Lodge # 459 Convention.