The origin of African Lodge, America’s first black Masonic lodge, dates to 1775 when Prince Hall (c.1738-1807) and fourteen other African Americans were accepted into lodge No. 441 (Irish Constitution) attached to the 38th Regiment of Foot stationed at Castle William (now Fort Independence) in Boston. When the regiment withdrew from Boston in July the following year, Hall obtained a dispensation that permitted the fifteen to convene as masons, process, and bury their dead with Masonic honors, but not to undertake initiations or other ritual. The arrangements, apparently acknowledged by PGM John Rowe, are set out in a letter and petition sent by Hall to William Moody, Master of Brotherly Love Lodge, No. 55, in England:
Permit me to return you my hearty thanks for your brotherly courtesy to Brothers Reed and Mene, when in a strange land, and when in a time of need you were so good as to receive them as brothers and to treat them as kindly as they inform me you did. What you have done to them, I look upon as done to me and the whole of us, for which I give you many thanks and likewise to all the Lodge. I hope they behaved themselves as men and as Masons with you, if not I would be glad if you would be so good as to let me know of it and they shall be dealt with accordingly.
Dear Brother, I would inform you that this Lodge has been founded almost this eight years, and had no warrant yet but only a permit from Grand Master Rowe to walk on St John’s Days and to bury our dead in form which we now enjoy. We have had no opportunity till now of applying for a warrant though we were pressed upon to send to France for one, but we refused it for reasons best known to ourselves.
We now apply to the fountain from whom we received lights for this favor and, dear Sir, I must beg you to be our advocate for us by sending this, our request, to His Royal Highness, the Duke of Cumberland, Grand Master, and to the Right Honourable Earl of Effingham, Acting Grand Master, the Deputy Grand Master and Grand Wardens and the rest of the Brethren of the Grand Lodge, that they would graciously be pleased to grant us a charter to hold this Lodge as long as we behave up to the spirit of the constitution.
This, our humble petition, we hope His Highness and the rest of the Grand Lodge will graciously be pleased to grant us there, though poor yet sincere Brethren of the Craft. And therefore, in duty bound ever to pray, I beg leave to subscribe myself your loving friend and Brother – Prince Hall, Master of the African Lodge No. 1, June 30th 1784, in the year of Masonry 5784, in the name of the whole Lodge.
C. Underwood, Secretary
In common with most American lodges, African Lodge ceased to meet during the War of Independence and, post-war, Hall sought to legitimize its status with recognition from other Boston lodges. They declined, either through racism and/or because they viewed African Lodge as irregular. Frustrated, Hall petitioned the Grand Lodge of England for a warrant. The decision to approach London was probably inspired by John Marrant, the lodge chaplain, an evangelical Methodist who had been ordained in London and returned there in 1790. The petition was delivered to William Moody who passed it to Grand Lodge. It was accepted and African Lodge obtained a charter remarkably quickly on 29 September 1784 and was entered onto the Grand Register as No. 459. There were however problems in arranging for the fee to be delivered to London and the warrant was delayed and not received by Boston until 29 April 1787. African Lodge met a week later on 6 May 1787.
Following the grant of the Lodge’s charter, a stream of letters flowed between Boston and London beginning in 1785 with a formal letter of thanks to the Duke of Cumberland. Between 1787 and 1789, Hall’s letters to Rowland Holt, Deputy Grand Master, and William White, Grand Secretary, update London and contain details of initiations, expulsions, and the deaths of various members. There are also requests to acknowledge receipt of their donations to the Grand Charity and a forwarded copy of African Lodge’s General Regulations dated 5 January 1789. Most letters were written by Hall personally from his rooms at the Sign of the Golden Fleece on Water Street in Boston.
Following the merger of the Antients and Moderns Grand Lodges in Massachusetts on 5 March 1792, African Lodge became the only lodge in Massachusetts that had been constituted by and remained subordinate to the Grand Lodge of England. Unrecognized by any other lodge in Massachusetts, African Lodge regarded itself and was regarded by London as an English Constitution lodge and cemented its status by continuing to contribute to the Grand Charity. This was recognized formally at the April 1792 Quarterly Communication of the Grand Lodge of England.
African Lodge continued to correspond with and pay fees to London until at least 1797 and the lodge remained on the Grand Register until 1813, when creation of the United Grand Lodge of England led to the wholesale erasure of lodges with which London had deemed it had lost contact. Ironically, African Lodge was unaware that it was no longer listed on the Grand Register and in 1824 wrote to London petitioning for the renewal of its charter. The letter acknowledged that while no monies had been sent for some years due to mismanagement, they would now be sending funds across, including the fee for a replacement warrant.
In March 1797, Hall constituted a sister lodge in Philadelphia to work under 459’s charter and in June the same year warranted another lodge at Providence, Rhode Island, on the same basis. In 1808, a year after Hall’s death, the three lodges formed African Grand Lodge and in 1847/48 this was renamed Prince Hall Grand Lodge.
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, many of America’s black community leaders emerged from the church, business, and sport and entertainment; but they also sprang from Prince Hall Freemasonry with its combination of Enlightenment principles, spirituality, and mutuality.
The churches and the fraternal/mutual aid societies formed the core of black communities during the latter part of the eighteenth century. These institutions served as the staging ground for reform and protest organizations and were the foundation of the social and economic structure of black society. They were central to an African American sense of identity. Because there were few opportunities for blacks to participate in the wider society, political, social, and educational goals found an outlet in the institutions of the black community. These organizations became extremely important because they provided their members with mutual aid and protection, whether it was religious, cultural, social, recreational, physical, economic, or political.
That is Prince Hall’s Masonic legacy.