A Depiction of Prince Hall
Prince Hall Charter
To some, Masonry is a mystery; to others it is a
way of life. Carl H. Claudy wrote in Foreign Countries, "Freemasonry begins teaching the
profane long before they apply for membership. Her reputation is her
first contact with the unelect; she is secret; she is universal; she has
enlisted the interest and the services of great and good men for hundreds of
years." It was this reputation that attracted a man named Prince
Hall to this ancient and honorable fraternity.
Details concerning the early life of Prince Hall are limited due to the lack of credible and consistent information. His birth year is one of the most argued subjects among historians, and while several records exist of men named "Prince Hall" in Boston at the time, an obituary listing on December 7th, 1807 stated that a 'Mr. Prince Hall', Master of African Lodge, died at the age of 72, making his year of birth to be in 1735, however 1738 has also been claimed to be supported by evidence. The birth year carved into his gravestone is 1748, which many scholars have all but proven to be unlikely, but is still considered possible by some. Masonic historians also vary on his place of birth from Africa to the West Indes, however no known evidence has been found to support claim to a true place of birth. There is also some dispute over whether the Prince Hall, a slave of a Mr. William Hall who later freed him, is our same Prince Hall or another of the same name. Even his appearance is under question. Although he is often depicted in works of art with finer features to where Bro. Charles H. Wesley, Ph.D., compares his portrait to that "which was near to a white man in appearance", there are several accounts of people describing Prince Hall as a man with strong African features, similar to the photo above.
When Hall arrived in Boston, he noticed that there were no provisions made for its Black citizens. He acquired a job as a leather maker and lived quite well. He became very outspoken about the conditions of Blacks. He demanded the education of Black children, the abolition of slavery and the inclusion of Blacks in the government on the same terms as whites. As an abolitionist, he, together with several others, addressed a petition protesting against the existence of slavery in the colony to the Massachusetts Legislature.
In the late 1700's, Prince Hall became interested in Freemasonry. He convinced 14 other Blacks to petition a lodge in Boston. They attempted to petition St. John's Lodge and were turned away. The 15 men then attempted to petition Military Lodge No. 441, which was attached to the British Garrison's 38th Regiment of Foot and belonged to the Grand Lodge of Ireland, and on the night of March 6, 1775, Prince Hall, Cryrus Jonbus, Buestop Slinger, Prince Rees, John Carter, Peter Freeman, Benjamin Tiler, Cuff Bufform, Thomas Sanderson, Prince Taylor, Cato Spears, Boston Smith, Peter Best, Forten Howard and Richard Tilly were initiated into Masonry at Castle William in Boston Harbor.
When Lodge No. 441 left Boston, they left Prince Hall and the others a permit that authorized them to meet as a Lodge, bury their dead in due Masonic form and celebrate St. John's day. In March of 1784, Prince Hall petitioned the Grand Lodge of England(Moderns) through Worshipful Master William Moody of Brotherly Love Lodge No. 55 (London, England) for a warrant of Constitution that would entitle the men to all the rights of a Masonic Lodge. This warrant was issued on September 29, 1784, although it would be 2 and a half years before African Lodge would actually receive it. Moody sent a letter to Hall on March 10, 1787, stating that the Charter was delivered to James Scott who was Captain of the ship, Neptune, and brother-in-law of John Hancock, signer of the U.S. Constitution and President of the Continental Congress. The Charter, received on April 29th 1787, signed by Deputy Grand Master Roland Holt and witnessed by Grand Secretary William White, reconstituted African Lodge No. 1 as African Lodge No. 459 with Prince Hall being its first Worshipful Master, and thus laid the foundation of Prince Hall Masonry in America. The original charter, which is still held by the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, is the most prized possession of Prince Hall Freemasons. Through it, we can prove our long and illustrious history and legitimacy. It is the only original charter held by any American Masonic Body.
In 1791, Prince Hall was made a Provincial Grand Master by the Premier Grand Lodge of England, which enabled him to later organize a lodge in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1797 at the request of Rev. Absalom Jones, and in Providence, Rhode Island, both under the same charter and name, African Lodge No. 459, although the Providence lodge was later named Hiram Lodge #3. After Prince Hall's death on December 4th, 1807(the obituary wasn't listed until three days later), the three lodges came together and on June 24th,1808, formed the first African Grand Lodge. Upon the emergence of the United Grand Lodge of England in 1813, The African Grand Lodge, like many others, was stricken from the rolls due to "lack of contact" and after being refused acknowledgement by the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, declared istelf an independent Grand Lodge, just as the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts had done 45 years earlier. African Grand Lodge was later named the Prince Hall Grand Lodge in honor of its founder and first Grand Master and since that time, every state Grand Lodge born out of the original has incorporated Prince Hall's name and are all styled The Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of (State) with the exception of Florida, titled The Most Worshipful Union Grand Lodge, and Mississippi, titled The Most Worshipful Stringer Grand Lodge. Over the years, there have been many doubts of Prince Hall Masonry's legitimacy in our mystic circle and some have claimed that the brothers that formed African Lodge No. 459 did not have the right to form a Grand Lodge, even though there are examples of this being an acceptable custom during the time by other Grand Lodges.
In 1869, a fire destroyed the Massachusetts Grand Lodge headquarters and a number of its priceless records. The charter in its metal tube was in the Grand Lodge chest. The tube saved the charter from the flames, but the intense heat charred the paper. It was at this time that Grand Master S. T. Kendall crawled into the burning building and in peril of his life, saved the charter from complete destruction. Thus a Grand Master's devotion and heroism further consecrated this parchment to us and added a further detail to its already interesting history. The original Charter No. 459 has long since been made secure between heavy plate glass and is kept in a fire-proof vault at the First National Bank of Boston. It is brought out and displayed only once every 10 years during a weekend-long ceremonial celebration of Prince Hall hosted by the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Massachusetts and attended by Masons from around the world. Today, the Prince Hall fraternity has over 4,500 lodges worldwide, forming 46 independent jurisdictions with a membership of over 300,000 masons.
It can be argued that one of the most important battles of
racism in this country was fought in the circles of Freemasonry. Black
Freemasons were leaders and key figures in helping runaway slaves through the
Underground Railroad. They helped establish the first schools for
African-American children and played key roles in the struggle for civil
rights. While Prince Hall Masonry has existed since the late 18th
century, and although it was considered "regular" by the United Grand
Lodge of England(UGLE), it did not receive official fraternal recognition from
the UGLE until December 14th, 1994, 219 years after the initiation of these
brave men. Even today, Prince Hall Masons are not recognized in some,
mostly southern, states because of what many refer to as a "question of
legitimacy of origin", but what most know to be racial division. As
Joseph Walks, Jr. wrote in Jno. G. Lewis, Jr.'s End of an Era, "The history of Prince Hall Freemasonry
is, in reality, the history of the Black experience in America."
Prince Hall's remains are buried in Copps Hill burial ground in Boston, Massachusetts where his grave is marked by a broken pillar. He was declared a Founding Father of the United States on October 20th, 2008 by the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts and a memorial was unveiled in his honor on May 15th, 2010 on the grounds of Cambridge Common, a civic landmark dating back to George Washington and home of several monuments. This historic event marked the establishment of the first Prince Hall Memorial in the United States as well as the first monument at Cambridge Common dedicated to an African American.