Prince Hall, our founder, was one of our great Americans, a worthy Grand Master associated with our first Grand Lodge and its expansion. His name is carried by our masonic organizations in the United States, and by thousands of Freemasons who regard themselves as descendants from the Grand Lodge of England, from which he received his authority more than two centuries ago. We in America celebrated in 1976 the two hundredth anniversary of our Declaration of Independence. This is also the two hundred and first (201st) anniversary of the founding of Prince Hall Masonry. It is a monument to Prince Hall’s life, career and leadership.
It was a significant event in Freemasonry on March 6, 1775, when Prince Hall and fourteen other men were initiated into Freemasonry through Warrant No. 459, which is still in our possession. John Batt, who was of the 38th Foot Regiment of the British Army, having enlisted in 1759 and learning of the American cause, re-enlisted in its army. The enlistees were Prince Hall, Cyrus Johnston, Bueston Slinger, Prince Rees, John Canton, Peter Freeman, Benjamin Tiler, Duff Ruform, Thomas Santerson, Prince Rayden, Cato Speain, Boston Smith, Peter Best, Forten Horward, and Richard Titley. The writer has this record. A permit was issued for these freemasons to meet as African Lodge No. 1, and they became the first Black freemasons in the United States. Prince Hall enlisted and served as a soldier in the 2nd and 6th Regiments of Massachusetts. In this connection, George W. Williams, historian, wrote in 1884, “that 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.”
The Revolutionary War being over in 1783, Prince Hall decided to approach England again. On March 2, 1784, he wrote a letter to William Moody, Worshipful Master of Brotherly Love Lodge No. 55 in London, England, stating that 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 to the Fountains from whence he received the Light for a Warrant.” This warrant or charter was prepared but was not sent. Three years passed yet the payment for it had not been received in London. It seems that Prince Hall had sent it but it had not been delivered. Finally, he was careful in selecting his messengers and asked Captain James Scott, brother-in-law of Governor John Hancock of Massachusetts, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Captain Scott delivered the letter and the money, and received a Charter. Prince Hall acknowledged this receipt and added in this letter to England, “By the grace of God, I shall endeavor to fulfill all that is required of me in the Charter and I shall make the Constitution my guide.’ He added, “I hope we can adorn our profession as Masons.” This Charter, under lock and key, is in the possession of African Lodge of Massachusetts. Some of us have seen it and treasure it.
It is believed to be the only original charter issued from the Grand Lodge of England which is now in the possession of any lodge in the United States. It is worth noting that recognition of this fact was adopted in a unanimous report of a committee of the historic Northern Jurisdiction in 1946 but it was delayed by another committee’s action.
Some white freemasons say the Blacks were not denied admission to white lodge and they point to the very few members, and the presence of others by invitation, as proof. We believe otherwise, for a contemporary, D. Bentley, wrote in his diary, “The thrust is they are ashamed of being on equality with blacks. Even the fraternities of France, given to merit without distinction of color do not influence Massachusetts Masons to give an embrace less emphatically or tender affectionate to their Black Brethren .. It is evident that a preeminence is claimed by whites.”
The questions of extending Freemasonry arose when Absalom Jones of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania appeared in Boston in 1791. He was an ordained Episcopal priest and a freemason who was interested in establishing a masonic lodge in Philadelphia. In 1792 Black men come from Providence, Rhode Island to Boston to inquire about Freemasonry. They attended to hear the charge by Prince Hall who, speaking of the presence of these men, said, “My dear brethren of Providence, who are at a distance from and cannot attend this lodge but seldom.”
Freemasons in both places, made in England, the West Indies or elsewhere, came to Boston to see Prince Hall and suggested their cities as places for lodges. At a subsequent assembly the African Grand Lodge was formed in 1791 by delegations from Philadelphia, Providence and New York in a Grand Lodge assembly. Prince Hall was elected Grand Master and remained in this office until his death. African Lodge in Philadelphia, and Hiram Lodge in Providence, came under his aegis in 1797. With growth and expansion the movement went west and south.
Prince Hall died on December 4, 1807. His successor was Nero Prince who sailed to Russia in the year 1808, George Middleton succeeded him for 1809-1810, then Peter Lew, Samuel H. Moody and the well known John T. Hilton. It was Hilton who recommended adopting a Declaration of Independence from the English Grand Lodge in 1827—as the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts had done in 1772—thereby assuming the power and prerogatives of an independent Grand Lodge.
On November 7, 1828 Freedoms Journal, the first Black newspaper, praised Prince Hall as “the Founder of African Lodge of Boston, and for his “work for the Grand Masonic Lodge.” The heritage which Prince Hall left us has authentic and factual goodness to us as Masons, and we go forward distributed in 44 Grand Lodges, Easter Star, two Supreme Councils, Golden Circles, Shriners, Daughters of Isis, Brother and Sisters in the United States, the West Indies, Canada, Liberia and West African, all doing a great work and spreading a good cause in Masonry To all these and those who read this, we say as Prince Hall said in 1797:
“Blessed be God, the Scene is Changed! They now confess that God has no respect of persons, and therefore receive them as friends and treat them as brothers. Thus doth Ethiopia stretch forth her hand from slavery to freedom and equality.”
Source: Text of page excerpted from <http://www.mwphglnj.org/phHistory.htm>, written by Dr. Charles H. Wesley in “Prince Hall: Life and Legacy” (1977) and later published on March 20, 1981 in the First Edition of the Prince Hall Masonic Directory. Portrait from the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of New Jersey website. Also see <http://www.phaohio.org/mwphgloh/likphhist.html> and <user.aol.com/jabron/history.htm>.