Named for one of the first Black Freemasons in the country, Prince Hall Grand Lodges still exist in many parts of the United States and throughout the world. Although the circumstances of his birth and early life are murky at best, Prince Hall became a central figure in the history of the Freemasons as well as the struggle for equality for Black people at the birth of the nation.
There are several stories circulating about Prince Hall’s early years. One story has him born in Barbados while another has him arriving in Boston from Africa and sold to a man named William Hall. While no story has ever been confirmed, records do provide some information about his adulthood. After his death on December 7, 1807, his age was listed as 72, which would put his date of birth on or around 1735. We do know that in 1787 he was a property owner and registered voter. He campaigned for the establishment of schools for Black children in Boston and for the Massachusetts legislature to protect free Blacks from being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Prince Hall also served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.
In 1775, Prince and 14 other men were initiated into Lodge 441 which was a lodge formed by the British Army while they were stationed in Boston. As they were leaving after the war, the lodge granted the men the authority to form African Lodge No. 1. They were given the authority to walk on St. John’s Day and bury their dead as Masonic brothers, but did not have a full warrant. Eight years after the lodge was formed, Prince Hall wrote to the Grand Lodge of England requesting a warrant that was granted, but because of communication and payment problems it wasn’t delivered until three years later.
Throughout history in the United States, there have been questions regarding the admission of Black men into Freemasonry. Contemporaries of Prince Hall have written that Blacks were indeed denied admission to lodges in Massachusetts and compared them to the more open lodges in France, stating that not even the French could influence the American Freemason’s disposition. Black men wishing to become Masons in the United States must be voted into the lodge unanimously and anonymously. Because it only took one vote to keep them out, most Grand Lodges in the U.S. generally excluded Blacks. Because the vote was anonymous, nobody within the lodge knew just who was carrying out a policy of racism.
In 1791, Black Masons met in Boston to form the African Grand Lodge of North America. Prince Hall was unanimously elected Grand Master and served until his death in 1807. He used his position as “Worshipful Master” in the Masonic Lodge to campaign against slavery and the denial of rights for Black people. The year following his death, the lodge was renamed the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Massachusetts in honor of its first Grand Master.