Prince Hall (c. 1735–1738—1807) was an African American noted as a tireless abolitionist, for his leadership in the free black community in Boston, and as the founder of Prince Hall Freemasonry. He lobbied for education rights for black children and was active in the back-to-Africa movement.
Hall tried to gain New England’s enslaved and free blacks a place in Freemasonry, education and the military, which were some of the most crucial spheres of society in his time. Hall is considered the founder of “Black Freemasonry” in the United States, known today as Prince Hall Freemasonry. Hall formed the African Grand Lodge of North America. Prince Hall was unanimously elected its Grand Master and served until his death in 1807.
Steve Gladstone, author of Freedom Trail Boston states that Prince Hall—known for his role in creating Black Freemasonry, championing equal education rights, and fighting slavery—"was one of the most influential free black leaders in the late 1700s."
There is confusion about his year of birth, place of birth, parents, and marriages–at least partly due to there being a number of "Prince Halls" during this lifetime.
Prince Hall was born between 1735 and 1738.[a] His place of birth and parents are also unclear.[b] The Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, in its Proceedings of 1906, opted for 1738, relying on a letter from Reverend Jeremy Belknap, a founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Prince Hall's birthday is traditionally celebrated on September 14.
Hall's early years are unclear. Historian Charles H. Wesley theorized that by age 11 Prince Hall was a slave (or servant) to Boston tanner William Hall, and by 1770 was a free, literate man and had been always accounted as a free man.[c] It was through William Hall that Prince learned how to process and dress leather. Inside Prince Hall author and historian David L. Gray states that he was unable to find an official historical record of the manumission.[d] Hall, identified as able to read and write, may have been self-taught or, like other slaves and free blacks in New England, he may have had assistance.[e]
Family, church and work life
Hall joined the Congregational Church in 1762 at 27 years of age. He married an enslaved woman named Sarah Ritchie (or Ritchery) who died in 1769. Hall married Flora Gibbs of Gloucester in 1770 David Gray, states he was married for a second time to Sylvia (Zilpha) Ward Hall. An article about Prince for Africans in America by PBS states that Prince Hall married a woman named Delia, a servant outside William Hall's household, and had a son named Primus in 1756.[f] In what is considered by some as being the most in-depth modern research into the life of Prince Hall and the origin of Prince Hall Freemasonry, Inside Prince Hall, author David L. Gray states that there is no record of a marriage of Prince Hall to Delia, nor record of a son, Primus.[g]
In Boston, Hall worked as a peddler, caterer and leatherworker, owning his own leather shop. In April 1777, he created five leather drumheads for an artillery regiment of Boston. Hall was a homeowner who voted and paid taxes.
Hall encouraged enslaved and freed blacks to serve the American colonial military. He believed that if blacks were involved in the founding of the new nation, it would aid in the attainment of freedom for all blacks. Hall proposed that the Massachusetts Committee of Safety allow blacks to join the military. He and fellow supporters petition compared Britain’s colonial rule with the enslavement of blacks. Their proposal was declined.
England issued a proclamation that guaranteed freedom to blacks who enlisted in the British army. Once the British Army filled its ranks with black troops, the Continental Army reversed its decision and allowed blacks into the military. It is believed, but not certain, that Hall was one of the six "Prince Halls" from Massachusetts to serve during the war.
Having served during the Revolutionary War, many African Americans expected, but did not receive, racial equality when the war ended. With the intention of improving the lives of fellow African Americans, Prince Hall collaborated with others to propose legislation for equal rights. He also hosted community events, such as educational forums and theatre events to improve the lives of black people.
Many of the original members of the African Masonic Lodge had served during the Revolutionary War.
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Prince Hall was interested in the Masonic fraternity because Freemasonry was founded upon ideals of liberty, equality and peace. Prior to the American Revolutionary War, Prince Hall and fourteen other free black men petitioned for admittance to the white Boston St. John’s Lodge. They were turned down. Having been rejected by colonial Freemasonry, Hall and 15 others sought and were initiated into Masonry by members of Lodge No. 441 of the Grand Lodge of Ireland on March 6, 1775. The Lodge was attached to the British forces stationed in Boston. Hall and other freedmen founded African Lodge No. 1 and he was named Grand Master.
The black Masons had limited power; they could meet as a lodge, take part in the Masonic procession on St. John’s Day, and bury their dead with Masonic rites but could not confer Masonic degrees or perform any other essential functions of a fully operating Lodge. Unable to create a charter, they applied to the Grand Lodge of England. The grand master of the Mother Grand Lodge of England, H. R. H. The Duke of Cumberland, issued a charter for the African Lodge No. 1 later renamed African Lodge no. 459 September 29, 1784. The lodge was the country's first African Masonic lodge. Due to the African Lodge's popularity and Prince Hall's leadership, the Grand Lodge of England made Hall a Provincial Grand Master on January 27, 1791. His responsibilities included reporting on the condition of lodges in the Boston area. Six years later, on March 22, 1797 Prince Hall organized a lodge in Philadelphia, called African Lodge #459, under Prince Hall’s Charter. They later received their own charter. On June 25, 1797 he organized African Lodge (later known as Hiram Lodge #3) at Providence, Rhode Island.
Author and historian James Sidbury said
"Prince Hall and those who joined him to found Boston's African Masonic Lodge built a fundamentally new "African" movement on a preexisting institutional foundation. Within that movement they asserted emotional, mythical, and genealogical links to the continent of Africa and its peoples.
After the death of Prince Hall, on December 4, 1807, the brethren organized the African Grand Lodge on June 24, 1808, including the Philadelphia, Providence and Boston lodges. The African Grand Lodge was in 1827 renamed the Prince Hall Grand Lodge, in his honor.
Hall was considered the "father of African Freemasonry." Prince Hall said of civic activities:
My brethren, let us pay all due respect to all who God had put in places of honor over us: do justly and be faithful to them hat hire you, and treat them with the respect they may deserve; but worship no man. Worship God, this much is your duty and christians and as masons.
Prince Hall worked within the state political arena to advance rights for blacks, end slavery and protect free blacks from being kidnapped by slave traders. He proposed a back-to-Africa movement, pressed for equal educational opportunities, and operated a school for African Americans in his home. He engaged in public speaking and debate, citing Christian scripture against slavery to a predominantly Christian legislative body.
Hall requested that the Massachusetts Congress create a school program for black children. Hall cited the same platform for fighting the American Revolution of “Taxation without Representation.” Although Hall’s arguments were logical, his two attempts at passing legislation through the Massachusetts Congress both resulted in failure. Hall then started a school program for free black children out of his own home with a focus on Liberal Arts and classical education.
Speech and petition writing
He is known for giving speeches and writing petitions. In a speech given to the Boston African Masonic Lodge, Hall stated, “My brethren, let us not be cast down under these and many other abuses we at present labour under: for the darkest is before the break of day… Let us remember what a dark day it was with our African brethren, six years ago, in the French West Indies. Nothing but the snap of the whip was heard, from morning to evening”.
His notable written works include the 1792 Charge and 1797 Charge. Hall’s 1792 Charge focused on the abolition of slavery in his home state of Massachusetts. He addressed the importance of black leaders playing prominent roles in the shaping of the country and creation of unity. In his 1797 Charge, Hall wrote about the treatment and hostility that blacks received in the United States. He recognized black revolutionaries in the Haitian Revolution. Hall also wrote a petition in 1787.
In a speech he presented in June, 1797, Hall said:
Patience, I say; for were we not possessed of a great measure of it, we could not bear up under the daily insults we meet with in the streets of Boston, much more on public days of recreation. How, at such times, are we shamefully abused, and that to such a degree, that we may truly be said to carry our lives in our hands, and the arrows of death are flying about our heads....tis not for want of courage in you, for they know that they dare not face you man for man, but in a mob, which we despise...
Back to Africa movement
Prince Hall was involved in the Back-to-Africa movement and approached the legislature to request funds for voluntary emigration to Africa. In January 1773, Prince Hall and seventy three other African-American delegates presented an emigration plea to the Massachusetts Senate. This plea, which included the contentions that African Americans are better suited to Africa's climate and lifestyle, failed. When a group of freed black men had begun to trip to Africa, they were captured and held, which reignited Hall's interest in the movement, but he found that there wasn't sufficient momentum and support for the Back-to-Africa movement to make it a reality.
Copp's Hill Burying Ground
Prince Hall died in 1807 and is buried in the Historic Copp's Hill Burying Ground in Boston along with other notable Bostonians from the colonial era. Also, thousands of African Americans who lived in the "New Guinea" community at the base of Copp's Hill are buried alongside Snowhill Street in unmarked graves.
A tribute monument was erected in Copp's Hill on June 24, 1835 in his name next to his grave marker. The inscription reads: "Here lies ye body of Prince Hall, first Grand Master of the colored Grand Lodge in Mass. Died Dec. 7, 1807" According to biographer David Gray, newspaper accounts showed that Hall died on December 4 and was buried three days later. His wife, Sylvia (Zilpha) Ward Hall, was the executrix of his estate, which amounted to $47.22, and there was no realty.
- Death notices which link Prince Hall to African Lodge, published on December 7, 1807, state that he died at the age of 72, which indicates he was born in 1735. A deposition dated August 31, 1807 records his age as 'about 70 years', suggesting his date of birth was about 1737. A letter written in 1795 by Reverend Jeremy Belknap, a founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society, places Halls' birth in 1737/38. Belknap bases this year of birth upon Prince Hall's stated age when Hall and Belknap met.
- The exact location where Prince Hall was born remains largely unknown. William H. Grimshaw in his 1903 The Official History of Freemasonry among the Colored People in North America is credited with having been the first to assert that Prince Hall was born in Bridgetown, Barbados in 1748. Grimshaw claimed that Hall was the son of English leather merchant, Thomas Hall, and his mother was of French descent. In 1977, historian Dr. Charles H. Wesley published Prince Hall Life and Legacy and says that there are unsubstantiated claims that William Hall was his father and his mother was a free woman of color. While Wesley and Walkes were keen to debunk Grimshaw and prove where Prince Hall was not born, they were unable to discover exactly where he was born. Author and historian James Sidbury said: "It is more likely that he was a native of New England."
- Historian Charles H. Wesley developed a theory about Prince Hall's early years. Based upon his research, by age 11 Prince Hall was a slave to Boston tanner William Hall. By 1770, Prince Hall was a free, literate black man living in Boston. A manumission certificate for Prince Hall, dated one month after the Boston Massacre [April, 1770], stated that "no longer Reckoned a slave, but [had] always accounted as a free man."
- The primary source of this claim that Prince Hall was a slave came from an unoriginal manumission document that was found in the private diary of a public notary named Ezekiel Price (c. 1728-1802). This manumission was found by John Sherman, and published in the Philalethes magazine in 1973. Historian and founder of the Phylaxis Society, Joseph Walkes made extensive inquires to locate the original evidence of the manumission at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the Secretary of the Commonwealth; both of which without success. In Inside Prince Hall author and historian David L. Gray notes, "The name Prince Hall, surprisingly, was not unique to the Boston area in the second half of the 18th century."
- Sidbury contends that Hall was in Richmond, CA by 1763 (end of the Seven Years' War).
- Primus was a Revolutionary War soldier, having enlisted at the age 19. Primus also established a school in his home for the education of African American children and sought funding from the community, including African American sailors. Elisha Sylvester was a teacher there. After Elisha, two Harvard University students taught the school. Unsuccessful in attempts to establish a public school with the city of Boston in 1800, the school was moved to the African Meeting House, the church built by Thomas Paul, an African American minister. Primus Hall continued fund-raising to support the African American school until 1835.
- According to David L. Gray, author of Inside Prince Hall:
There is no other evidence that ‘our’ Prince Hall was the father of Primus. Their paths crossed several times over the years, but no such claim is recorded prior to 1836. Primus made no claim on Prince Hall’s estate, such as it was, in 1807/8, and there is no record of the alleged marriage to Delia. One point worth noting is that if Primus made a true statement in his pension claim, and ‘his’ Prince Hall was indeed ‘our’ Prince Hall, then the Masonic Prince Hall was a free man in 1756 and could not have been the slave who was manumitted by the William Hall family in 1770. Nor is there evidence of other children by any of the women registered as marrying a man named Prince Hall in the Boston area in the relevant period. It is likely that ‘our’ Prince Hall fathered no children, but devoted his considerable energy to the well-being of his community and his lodge, leaving as his legacy a lodge which sired a whole fraternity, Prince Hall Freemasonry.
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