Harvard’s Houghton Library is showing off a recent acquisition, which came through the university’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute. It’s a 1799 Freemasonry certificate signed by Prince Hall, founder of the African-American Freemason movement. The library’s blog says:
Hall may have been born a slave in Barbados (however, several conflicting versions of Hall’s early life exist). He came to Boston in 1765, and quickly became a leader within the African-American community of Boston. In 1775, Hall and thirteen other black men were initiated into Military Lodge No. 441 in Boston, which was then affiliated with the British Army.Hall and his comrades were initiated as Freemasons by officers of the British army’s 38th Regiment on 6 Mar 1775 at Castle William in Boston harbor. On that same day, Dr. Joseph Warren—Grand Master of one line of Freemasons in North America—gave an oration commemorating the Boston Massacre, which other officers apparently attended to disrupt.
Following the Revolution, facing discrimination, (to be initiated into a Lodge, a Mason needs to gain a unanimous vote, but as votes are contributed anonymously, it would be impossible to identify any one dissenting individual), black Masons began urging Hall to form a separate organization. Hall was elected the first Grand Master of the African Grand Lodge of North America, and the Lodge was later renamed in his honor.
The Freemasons in the 38th may have made those fourteen men Freemasons in an attempt to win the loyalty of some prominent free blacks. They may have done so to highlight the hypocrisy of rebels who spoke about liberty but kept people in slavery (as Warren did). They may even have been lampooning Warren’s Masonic status, which was disputed by an older and wealthier lodge in Boston, by inducting Massachusetts men of African origin into the “real” movement ahead of him.
After the war broke out, a little over a month later, the 38th fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill, suffering more casualties than any other regiment in the final assault. According to tradition, Hall fought on the provincial side in the same battle, but there’s no documentation for that. His activity during the war is clouded by the fact that “Prince Hall” was a fairly common name.
In 1777, Prince Hall signed a petition to the Massachusetts General Court seeking an end to slavery in the new state. (Another signer, Peter Best, might also be the Peter Bestes who had submitted a similar petition in 1773.) In 1788, a letter from Boston published in the New-York Packet referred to Hall as “one of the head men among the blacks in this town.” He continued to lobby and organize on behalf of African-American rights until he died in 1807.
Thanks to Jeremy Dibbell at PhiloBiblos for the pointer.