This story originally appeared in the Fall 2002 issue of California Freemason.
For the ex-slaves living in post-Revolutionary Boston, Freemasonry offered a set of ideas that had great bearing on their identities. The Masonic values of brotherhood, universal love, and the equality implicit in “meeting on the level” could even be used to “challenge the injustices of the dominant culture.”
Prince Hall, an ex-slave living in Boston during the last half of the 18th century, used Freemasonry to rethink the status of African-Americans in American society and to challenge the powerful to follow suit.
Prince Hall was born into slavery in 1735. After receiving his freedom in 1770, he worked as a leather dresser in Boston. It is believed that he was one of the six black men of Massachusetts named Prince Hall listed in military records of the Revolution, and he may well have fought at Bunker Hill. A bill he sent to a military official indicates that he crafted five leather drumheads for the Boston Regiment of Artillery in April 1777. His involvement in the Revolution led the way for his fraternal affiliation.
On March 6, 1775, Prince Hall and 14 other black men were initiated into Freemasonry. Sergeant John Batt, of the Irish Military Lodge No. 441, conducted the work. When Brother Batt’s Regiment left Boston three weeks later, he gave Prince Hall a “permet” authorizing them to march on St. John’s Day and to bury their dead in a due and proper manner.
After nine years, on September 29, 1784, Prince Hall, Boston Smith, and Thomas Sanderson secured the issuance of a warrant by the Grand Lodge of England (Moderns) for African Lodge No. 459. Prince Hall would serve as master of the lodge for many years. This provided Prince Hall with a public identity and a platform for speaking to the Boston community. Contemporary references to him always included his Masonic standing, often identifying him as “the grand master of the black lodge.”
Brother Hall wrote in 1782 that the two “grand pillars of Masonry” were love to God and universal love to all mankind. For Hall, Masonry’s expressed values of freedom, equality, and human dignity enabled him to formulate a means of denouncing Boston’s treatment of black Americans in the years following the Revolution. In 1787, Brother Hall and other black citizens of Boston filed a petition in the Massachusetts legislature stating that even though blacks paid the same taxes as whites, their children were not allowed to attend public schools. The petition was ignored. So in 1800, Brother Hall opened a school for black children in his own home, thus founding Boston’s first black school.
Prince Hall had his greatest impact by drawing attention to Masonry’s other great pillar — brotherly love. Speaking as a member of an international brotherhood, he gained the moral authority to challenge the white Masonic orthodoxy of the day, simply by pointing out the inconsistencies between a fraternity that avowed equality and fraternity, yet treated blacks as inferiors.
When African Lodge No. 459 petitioned to join the newly formed Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, they were refused entry into “mainstream” Freemasonry. The lodge continued to work, however, and later two other lodges were established: one in Philadelphia and one in Providence. These lodges were the source of the African Grand Lodge.
Prince Hall died in 1807 at the age of 72. Later, the African Grand Lodge honored him by changing its name to Prince Hall Grand Lodge.
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