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Prince Hall
c.1735 – December 4, 1807
Freemason


Prince Hall (c.1735 – December 4, 1807) is considered the founder of "Black Freemasonry" in the United States, known today as Prince Hall Freemasonry.

Prince Hall's birthdate and birthplace are subject to conjecture. He may have been born in either England, Massachusetts or Barbados, and his year of birth is generally recorded as either 1735 or 1738[2]. Narrative stories of Prince Hall's birth and youth are unsubstantiated and appear to have been invented by their authors (particularly William H. Grimshaw in 1903).

Documents in Massachusetts showing that slaveowner William Hall freed a man named Prince Hall on April 9, 1765 cannot be conclusively linked to any one individual as there exists record of no fewer than 21 males named Prince Hall, and several other men named Prince Hall were living in Boston at that time. It is also unknown whether he was free-born or a freedman.

Prince Hall was a property owner and a registered voter in Boston. He worked as an abolitionist and civil rights activist, fought for laws to protect free blacks in Massachusetts from kidnapping by slave traders, campaigned for schools for black children, and operated a school in his own home.

On March 6, 1775, Prince Hall and fourteen other free black men were initiated, passed and raised in Military Lodge No. 441, an integrated Lodge attached to the British Army and then stationed in Boston.

It is probable that Prince Hall served in the Massachusetts militia during the American Revolutionary War, but his service record is unclear because at least six men from Massachusetts named "Prince Hall" served in the military during the war. Historians George Washington Williams and Carter Woodson believed that this Prince Hall did serve in the war. He may have been one of the black soldiers who fought on the American side of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

When the British Army left Boston in 1776, the black Masons were granted a dispensation for limited operations as African Lodge No. 1. They were entitled to meet as a Lodge, to take part in the Masonic procession on St. John's Day, and to bury their dead with Masonic rites, but not to confer degrees or perform other Masonic functions. Excluded by the Provincial Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, they were granted a charter by the Premier Grand Lodge of England in 1784 as African Lodge No. 459 (but, due to communications problems, did not receive the actual charter until 1787).

Shortly after that, black Masons elsewhere in the United States began contacting Prince Hall with requests to establish affiliated Lodges in their own cities. Consistent with European Masonic practice at that time, African Lodge granted their requests and served as Mother Lodge to new black Lodges in Philadelphia, Providence and New York.

A problem quickly arose for black men wishing to become Masons in the newly formed United States: the members of a Lodge must agree unanimously in an anonymous vote to accept a petitioner to receive the degrees. As a consequence of the unanimity requirement, if just one member of a lodge did not want black men in his Lodge, his vote was enough to cause the petitioner's rejection. Thus, although exceptions did exist, Masonic Lodges and Grand Lodges in the United States generally excluded African Americans. And since the vote is conducted anonymously, this created a second problem: since no one knew who had voted against the applicant, it was impossible to identify a member as pursuing a policy of racism. This allowed even a tiny number of prejudiced members to effectively deny membership to black petitioners, and in some cases even exclude black men who had legitimately been made Masons in integrated jurisdictions. Thus there arose a system of racial segregation in American Masonry, which remained in place until the 1960s and which persists in some jurisdictions even to this day.

In 1791, black Freemasons met in Boston and formed the African Grand Lodge of North America. Prince Hall was unanimously elected its Grand Master and served until his death in 1807. (The claim that he was appointed Provincial Grand Master for North America in 1791 appears to have been fabricated.) The African Grand Lodge was later renamed the Prince Hall Grand Lodge in his honor. In 1827 the African Grand Lodge declared its independence from the United Grand Lodge of England, as the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts had done 45 years earlier. It also stated its independence from all of the white Grand Lodges in the United States.

Today, predominantly black Prince Hall Grand Lodges exist in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Liberia, governing Prince Hall Lodges throughout the world. After nearly two centuries of controversy, the Grand Lodge of England was asked to decide the matter of Prince Hall Masonic legitimacy. Carefully studying the records, the Grand Lodge of England concluded that the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Massachusetts was indeed entitled to Masonic recognition, and this against the tradition that, per state, only one recognised Masonic body should exist. As a result, most (though not all) "mainstream" (i.e. predominantly white) Grand Lodges in the United States and elsewhere have extended full fraternal recognition to their Prince Hall counterparts.

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