To fully understand and appreciate the significance of Prince Hall Freemasonry, we need to examine the extraordinary life of Prince Hall himself. For it was his unwillingness to be victimized and downtrodden as an African American that led to the establishment of the oldest and largest predominantly African American fraternity in the United States.
Prince Hall’s story represents the struggles that black men, women, and children faced in society in the eighteenth century. His creation of Prince Hall Freemasonry serves as an exceptionally important reminder that the Craft should be accessible to every man, regardless of his color, creed, or background.
Let’s begin by taking a look at the life of Prince Hall, the abolitionist, to learn how he came to establish ‘Black Freemasonry’ in the United States.
His early years are ill-defined
It wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe Prince Hall as one of the most prominent and influential abolitionists of the eighteenth century. But his early life is not as easy to define. Born sometime between 1735 and 1738 in New England, it was unclear whether Hall was enslaved in his early life, but some sources point to the fact that he was the property of Boston tanner William Hall until 1770.
From 1770 onwards, he was a free man and earned a living by processing and dressing leather. He undoubtedly learned these skills from William Hall, whether he was in service or enslaved to him at the time.
Prince Hall could also read and write and was either self-taught or received help from white abolitionists prominent in his state at the time. He was a member of the congregational church and was married at least once. While Hall’s early years are subject to much speculation, perhaps the truest and most comprehensive account of his life before Freemasonry can be read in Inside Prince Hall by David Gray.
The Revolutionary War
In the early years of the Revolutionary War, Hall actively encouraged freed blacks to serve the American colonial military. His reasoning for this was that if blacks were instrumental in helping found the United States, it would support their cause for emancipation and equality.
In spite of their service, blacks did not receive racial equality at the end of the war. It was within this setting that Prince Hall, alongside other prominent blacks of the age, came together to propose legislation for equal rights.
Hall’s early activism
Prince Hall was vocal and coherent with his abolitionist views. He entered the political arena in an attempt to influence policy and open people’s eyes to the barbarity of slavery. Hall launched a movement called ‘Back to Africa,’ which sought to secure funds from the legislature to support voluntary emigration back to Africa for black people who had been enslaved.
The culmination of the movement was an emigration plea that was put together by Hall and seventy-three other African American delegates. They presented the plea to the Massachusetts Senate, but it was not well received and ultimately failed.
His interest in Freemasonry and the formation of African Lodge No.1
Hall became interested in Freemasonry because of the ideals upon which it was found. He first attempted to join a Masonic lodge prior to the Revolutionary War, but he and fourteen others were turned down by the all-white Boston St. John’s Lodge.
Instead of giving up on his interests in the fraternity, Hall looked for another means of becoming a Mason, despite being rejected in the very birthplace of Freemasonry in America. In 1775, Hall, alongside fifteen others, was initiated into Lodge No. 441 of the Grand Lodge of Ireland. This was possible thanks to the British & Irish soldiers stationed in Boston at the time of the war.
Soon after, Hall founded African Lodge No.1, and he served as the first Grand Master. Although blacks were permitted to become Masons, their duties and responsibilities were limited. For instance, they weren’t permitted to confer Masonic degrees and were initially unable to create a charter.
But after the Grand Lodge of England became aware of Hall’s popularity and his charismatic leadership, they stepped in and issued a charter to Hall’s African lodge. It was renamed African Lodge No. 459 in September 1784.
Hall’s efforts to establish the African Lodge led him to be considered as the founder of ‘Black Freemasonry.’ There’s little doubt that his incredible legacy lives on to this day.
Prince Hall Freemasonry today
Today, the Prince Hall fraternity has more than 4,500 lodges in different parts of the world. The structure of the order is a little complex, as it has two competing organizations within. The majority of Prince Hall lodges are known as Prince Hall Affiliation. These are subject to 41 independent state grand lodges.
The remainder of the Prince Hall lodges are subject to the Prince hall National Grand Lodge and are known as Prince Hall Origin. Prince Hall jurisdictions have been established in the United States, the Caribbean, and Liberia in West Africa.
Although not officially accepted by all Grand Lodges, Prince Hall Grand Lodges are recognized by 45 out of the 51 mainstream US Grand Lodges. The Grand Lodges that refuse to recognize Prince Hall Freemasonry today are located in the southern states.
Although African Americans are warmly welcomed into Masonic lodges throughout the United States in the present day, the Prince Hall lodges still have a vital part to play in the maintenance and preservation of the Craft.
After all, its founders fought tirelessly against racial injustice and inequality and utilized Freemasonry as a means to achieve their abolitionist agendas. Brother Prince Hall’s contribution to American society, as well as Freemasonry specifically, is something that should be cherished and celebrated by all Americans today.
For more information about Prince Hall Freemasonry, you can visit their website.