Prince Hall Freemasons: Behind the Veil of Secrecy

The discovery that your relative was a Mason (freemason) often raises a lot of questions about the secret society. Perhaps you were fortunate to inherit some Masonic regalia (e.g., medals, white gloves, a gavel, sash, pin, or a ceremonial white apron) and are simply curious about their significance. Maybe you first became aware that your relative was a member of a Masonic Lodge after reading their obituary.  
There is much about Freemasons that remains shrouded in mystery to the outside world. But, we are beginning to learn much more about one branch of the fraternity —the Prince Hall Freemasonry.  

Renewed Interest in the Freemasons

The history of the Freemasons has gained renewed interest in recent years due to the popular television show, The Curse of Oak Island.

Oak Island in Nova Scotia

Brothers Rick and Marty Lagina and the Oak Island team have considered numerous theories about the island’s previous inhabitants and possible treasure buried there. Links have been drawn to the Knights Templar, precursors for the Freemasons by drawing parallels between the discoveries on the island and the rituals of the Freemasons. 

Unidentified lodge members.

The real story of Freemasonry is arguably more interesting than all the tales woven about it on Oak Island. One lesser known, but extremely intriguing aspect of the Mason’s remarkable history involves the African American Freemasons

Freemasonry

Freemasonry dates back at least to the late 16th century in Scotland and early 18th century in England. However, Masons often cite their beginnings with the building of King Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, which was completed in 957 BC.

The location of the first Grand Lodge in America is the subject of continued debate; however, the Provincial Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania claims to be the oldest. Records of the Lodge begin June 24, 1731, but the lodge was likely built earlier. Benjamin Franklin reported in his Gazette for Dec. 8, 1730, that there were “several Lodges of Free Masons erected in this Province…” Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was a Grand Master of Pennsylvania Freemasons in 1734 and 1749. 

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, circa 1785

In their earliest form, Masonic Lodges were restricted to stonemasons. They trained apprentices and regulated their craft similar to today’s labor unions. Over time, they began to accept non-stonemasons who were skilled in geometry, versed in history, and interested in civic affairs and fraternity. The main tenets of early Freemasons were Fraternity, Relief, and Truth. Freemasons were expected to be honest in their relationships and business dealings, charitable, tolerant, and forthright. 

There is no religious requirement for membership, beyond a belief in a supreme being who freemasons refer to as “The Great Architect of the University.” The “G” in their seal stands for “Geometry.” The square and compass symbolize “moral virtue and self-discipline.” The “All-Seeing Eye” represents the Eye of God that is watching over mankind. 

Hidden in Plain Sight, African American Freemasonry

Prince Hall

The legacy of African American Freemasonry begins in 1775 with Prince Hall, a prominent member of Boston’s African American community.

Hall was attracted to Freemasonry for several reasons: 

  • its benevolence and charity.
  • its ideals for the betterment of man.
  • the opportunities to learn the stonemason trade.
  • a place to make business connections.
  • and, a belief that the organization could advance the cause of African American equality in the colonies. 

Hall applied to join Boston’s Masonic Lodge, but was denied membership. Black men at the time were not allowed to become Masons in the American colonies; in fact, many Masons still owned slaves. 

Not to be deterred by the rejection, Hall determined if he could not be a member of a colonial Masonic Lodge, he would seek to become a member of a lodge affiliated with England.

Hall, and 14 other Black men who were also rejected by the Boston lodges, approached Army Lodge No. 441 of the 38th Regiment of the British Army to seek admission. (Note: This happened during the pre-Revolutionary War period and the British occupied Boston at the time.) 

Hall’s associates were: 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.  

On March 6, 1775, Prince Hall and his associates were admitted into British Army Lodge, No. 58, which was attached to one of General Thomas Gage’s regiments in Boston.

On March 2, 1784, Hall wrote a letter to William Moody, Worshipful Master of Brotherly Love Lodge No. 55 in London, England, stating that the African lodge had been in operation for eight years and they had only “a Permit to walk on St. John’s Day and to bury their dead in manner and form” and he thought it “best to send the Fountains from when he received the Light for a Warrant.”

A warrant was prepared, but not sent to Hall. Apparently, the money needed to secure the charter, which had been sent by courier to London, never reached there. 

Freemasons Hall, London

After the first attempt to get the funds to London failed, Hall selected a trusted new messenger to deliver them. This time he asked Captain James Scott, brother-in-law of Governor John Hancock of Massachusetts and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Captain Scott ultimately delivered the money to London and on Sept. 29, 1784, the Grand Lodge of England permitted Hall and his brethren to constitute African Lodge No. 459.

Warrant to African Lodge No. 459 of Boston

However, it would be another three years before the actual charter was received. The Warrant to African Lodge No. 459 of Boston is the most significant document known to the Prince Hall Masonic fraternity. It was delivered in Boston on April 29, 1787, by Captain James Scott. The charter is in the possession of African Lodge of Massachusetts and kept under lock and key. 

Prince Hall was inducted Master Mason of the African Lodge, where he presided over its membership until his death. 

When Prince Hall died in 1807, there were African lodges in Boston, Mass., Philadelphia, Penn., and Providence, Rhode Island, all under the auspices of the African Lodge of Boston. After his death, the brethren organized the African Grand Lodge on June 24, 1808, including the Philadelphia, Providence and Boston lodges. 

The African Grand Lodge declared its independence from the United Grand Lodge of England and all other lodges in 1827.

In 1847, they were renamed the Prince Hall Grand Lodge in honor of their founder.

Until 1865, most Prince Hall Grand Lodges were located in the North, but after the Civil War, additional lodges formed across the South. Black Freemasonry remained a highly prestigious, but small fraternity until 1900. Then, in the early 20th century, membership rapidly expanded.

Prince Hall Freemasons were predominantly businessmen and landowners. In fact, there remains a close connection between freemasonry and Black enterprises today. For most members, the freemasonry is an empowering organization, allowing members to establish business contacts and develop their business skills. 

Today, Prince Hall Freemasonry remains the oldest recognized and continuously active fraternal organization founded by African Americans. More than 5,000 lodges worldwide can trace their heritage to the original African Lodge #459. There are more 300,000 members in the United States. There are also thousands of members in Canada, Germany, Belgium, England, Italy, Kuwait, and several West African nations.

Official portrait of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall

Many key figures and renowned African-Americans have been inducted into the organization, including some familiar names: Jesse Jackson, Booker T. Washington, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Martin Luther King Sr., Alex Haley, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Sugar Ray Robinson, Nelson Mandela, Shaquille O’neal, and U.S. Representatives John Conyers, Charles Rangel, John Lewis, and Elijah Cummings.

Prince Hall, Father of African-American Freemasonry

“Brother Prince Hall” (1924) Source: The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Although a well-known figure and considered the “Father of African-American Freemasonry,” Prince Hall’s early life remains clouded in mystery, starting with his birth year and place.  

Contemporary research places his birth year between 1735 and 1738. His birth date is celebrated by the Masons on Sept. 12. The Deaths Registered in the City of Boston, from 1801 to 1848, show Prince Hall died Dec. 4, 1807, at age 72. If this Massachusetts vital record is accurate, Hall was born in 1735.  

Some historians have theorized that Prince Hall was the son of Thomas Prince Hall, an Englishman, and a free Black woman of French heritage, and that he was born in Bridgetown, Barbados, arriving in America around age 17 as a free man. However, other Masonic research has concluded Prince Hall was enslaved to Boston tanner William Hall between 1749 and 1770.

No record of birth, by church or state, has been found in either Barbados or Boston. But, that is not surprising since such records were uncommon for Africans of this period. 

According to Charles Harris Wesley, Ph.D., a renowned scholar and Masonic historian, the first record he believes is connected to Prince Hall is a manumission paper filed by William Hall of Boston. What cannot be conclusively verified is that this is the same Prince Hall, as there were others with the same name living in Boston.  

The document reads: “Prince Hall has lived with us 21 years and served us well upon all occasions, for which reasons we maturely give him his freedom and that he is no longer to be reckoned a slave, but has been always accounted as a freeman by us, as he has served us faithfully. Upon that account, we have given him his freedom. As witness our hands this ninth day of April, 1770.” It is witnessed by Susannah Hall, Elizabeth Hall, William Hall, and Margaret Hall. It is recorded in the Boston Athenaeum, April 12, 1770. 

Prince Hall, Entrepreneur

Logic suggests that Prince Hall had served as an apprentice, where he learned to perfect his trade as a skilled leather craftsman. He was able to read and write and delivered eloquent speeches, meaning he was either self-educated or someone in his early life provided him with instruction, as neither free or enslaved African Americans were allowed to receive an education during this period. 

Hall had an entrepreneurial spirit, first working as a street peddler and then establishing a successful leather shop. In April 1777, he handcrafted five leather drum heads for an artillery regiment of Boston. He was also a sought-after caterer, who had his own Black staff that served fine cuisine at Turtle Feasts in Salem.  

By age 25, Prince Hall owned a personal dwelling, other land and goods, and was paying taxes.  

Prince Hall, military service

An African American soldier representing the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War, credit National Park Service

Prince Hall enlisted and served as a soldier in at least three Massachusetts regiments. He is listed in the U.S. Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783, with military duty beginning April 20, 1778, in Massachusetts, serving with the 15th Battalion Regiment.

Historian George W. Williams wrote in 1884, “he saw hard service we know by the record of the two regiments he served in, always distinguished for steadiness and valor. Prince Hall was not only a good soldier, he was a statesman.” 

Prince Hall’s married life

Regarding Hall’s personal life, he was married five times. Before he met his first wife, he may have fathered a son, Primus Hall, whose mother, Delia, was a servant in another household. However, a month after his birth, Primus was given to Ezra Trask of Danvers, Connecticut, who raised the boy to be a shoemaker.  

Hall’s wives included: 

  1. Sarah Ritchie (Ritchery), m. 2 Nov 1763; died 1769
  2. Florah Gibbs, m. 26 Jul or 22 Aug 1770
  3. Affee Moody, m. 14 Aug 1783
  4. Nabby Ayrault, m. 28 Jun 1798, died 5 Apr 1805
  5. Zilpha (Silva) Johnson, m. 28 Jun 1804; died 1836

According to the 1790 U.S. Federal Census, Prince Hall was living in Boston, Massachusetts at the time and there were a total of six free members in his household. Who those members were is unknown. There are no other known children to his marriages. 

Prince Hall, civil rights leader

Throughout his life, Prince Hall steadfastly believed in harmony among all and equality for all. He dedicated his life’s work to helping fellow African Americans gain stature, freedom, education, and full citizenship in America.

Prince Hall delivered many speeches. This quote from one of them still resonates today, 226 years later.

“Harmony in general (says he) prevails between us as citizens, for the good law of the land does oblige every one to live peaceably with all his fellow citizens, let them be black or white. We stand on a level, therefore no pre-eminence can be claimed on either side. As to our associating, there is here a great number of worthy good men and good citizens, that are not ashamed to take an African by the hand; but yet there are to be seen the weeds of pride, envy, tyranny, and scorn, in this garden of peace, liberty and equality.” 

Prince Hall, 1795

As a Masonic leader, Hall was introduced to leading Boston citizens and notable Masons, such as John Hancock, Paul Revere and Benjamin Franklin. Through his influential connections and his Masonic membership, Hall was able to propose several petitions to the Massachusetts legislature and other governmental bodies.   

  • He petitioned the Continental government to allow Blacks to serve in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.
  • He petitioned the legislature to allow Blacks to return to Africa as part of the “Back-to-Africa Movement.” 
  • In 1777, he lobbied Massachusetts lawmakers to abolish the slave trade in Massachusetts.  
  • In 1787, he petitioned the Massachusetts legislature to provide schools for Black children. When that petition was denied, he started a school in his home. 
  • On Feb. 27, 1788, in a memorial addressed to the Massachusetts Senate and House of Representatives, Hall protested against the kidnapping of “colored men” for the West Indies slave trade. The speech was delivered as part of the “The Return of Kidnapped Movement: Seamen to Boston” campaign.

Prince Hall, death and burial

Prince Hall died Dec. 7, 1807, in Boston, Massachusetts. Zilpha Hall, his fifth wife, was the executrix of her husband’s estate.

His will, dated July 20, 1807, at Salem, Mass., listed a dwelling house, 18 poles of land, furniture, leather tools, pewter ware, earthenware, ironware, copper, chest and trunk, barrels, woodenware, a bed, warming pan, and wash tubs. The total value of the estate was $287.00. 

Grave of Prince Hall, First Grand Master of the Colored Grand Lodge of Masons in Mass. Died, Dec. 7, 1807. Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, Boston, Mass.

Prince Hall is buried in Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in Boston, in a plot with his first wife. On one side of the monument, the inscription reads: “Here lies ye body of Sarah Ritchery, wife of Prince Hall, died February the 26th, 1769, aged 24 years.” On the reverse side of the stone is an inscription added sometime later: “Here lies the body of Prince Hall, First Grand Master of the Colored Grand Lodge of Masons in Mass., died Dec. 7, 1807.” (Actually Hall died Dec. 4, 1807. Whoever cut the inscription took the date of the announcement in the Dec. 7, 1807, Boston newspaper, rather than his actual date of death.)

The above accounts of Prince Hall’s life are based on information gathered from notable historical research, the sites and documents referenced below, published histories of his life available through multiple Prince Hall lodges’ websites, Boston newspaper articles, and this author’s genealogy research, which is available on Ancestry.com.

Article References

For further learning

  • Prince Hall Freemasonry: The Secret Within, by Warrior Hawk
  • All Men Free and Brethren: Essays on the History of African American Freemasonry
  • Recognizing Prince Hall: An Eleven Year Journey to Honesty, by Dan Weatherington
  • The Library of Congress’ collections contain a variety of material associated with Prince Hall Freemasonry, including manuscripts, photographs and books. 

Related

All Men Free and Brethren: Essays on the History of African American Freemasonry
Black Freemasonry: From Prince Hall to the Giants of Jazz, by Cecile Revauger
Prince Hall Freemasonry: The Secret Within, by Warrior Hawk

2 thoughts on “Prince Hall Freemasons: Behind the Veil of Secrecy

  1. The second photo is of Harry A. Williamson and the Brothers of Carthaginian Lodge #47 in New York. I wrote a book on Prince Hall Freemasonry in the Wild West entitled “The Lost Empire: Black Freemasonry in the Old West”.

    Liked by 1 person

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