The role of Prince Hall Freemasonry in American life during the nineteenth century is at the forefront of current American academic scholarship and Masonic studies. Professor John Kyle Day’s Paper on Prince Hall Freemasonry in Arkansas during the American Civil War and Reconstruction Era, printed in Quatuor Coronati’s collection Freemasonry on the Frontier (2021), is an illuminating example of the topic and can be read here: From Centre to Circumference, From Base to Cope.
Within the states of the former Confederacy and along the western frontier, Prince Hall Freemasonry was arguably the single most important civic institution for freed men and their families, ranking alongside family and religious life. As archetypes, Arkansas’ Prince Hall Brethren stood at the vanguard of the construction of black civil society, creating autonomous, free, and independent communities, securing the political, economic, and legal rights gained in the aftermath of the collapse of American chattel slavery.
As with Prince Hall Freemasonry elsewhere on the antebellum frontier including Ohio and Indiana, the places where Prince Hall Lodges were established in Arkansas were commercial river ports with significant free black communities. Towns such as Helena, Little Rock, and Pine Bluff, served as metropoles for Prince Hall Freemasonry and are examples of its success and that of the black community in Arkansas.
Much like the role that Caucasian masonry played in North America during the American Revolutionary Era, the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Arkansas quickly became the premier black social fraternity in the second half of the nineteenth century, attracting the state’s leading black businessmen, clergymen, politicians, and teachers, while local lodges, closely aligned with the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, became keystones of the rural and urban black communities they served. Alluding to his Prince Hall brethren and the accomplishments made in the previous twenty-five years, AME Bishop Henry McNeal Turner of Georgia, who visited the state in 1888, predicted that ‘Arkansas is destined to be the great Negro State of the country [for] the rich lands, the healthy regions, the meagre prejudice compared to some States and opportunities to acquire wealth all conspire to make it inviting to the colored man’. Turner reported, ‘to see a colored judge, justice of the peace, member of the legislature, clerk of the court, sheriff, policeman and other high functionaries is an ordinary sight’.