This illustration depicts the likeness of Prince Hall. Image Source: Wikipedia.
Prince Hall (ca. 1735–1807) was a prominent leader in the free black community in Boston before and after the American Revolutionary War. He is most well-known for establishing the first African Freemason lodge in America — African Lodge #1 — in 1775 and petitioning the Massachusetts government for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. Hall’s petition to free his fellow blacks is considered to be the first to claim that all people in America — not just freemen — should be granted the rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence.
Not much is known about Hall’s early life — but it is generally believed:
- He was enslaved or apprenticed to a man named William Hall, who may have been his father.
- Prince Hall learned how to tan hides into leather.
- In 1756, he had a son, Primus. The boy was born to a servant, Delia, who lived with another family in Boston. Primus fought in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.
- Hall joined the Congregational Church in 1762.
- He was married twice. The first time was with an enslaved woman, Sarah Ritchie. After she died, he married Flora Gibbs, who was from Gloucester.
Some accounts say Hall was born in Barbados, others say Boston. The trouble with pinning down the details of Hall’s early life is that there were multiple people named Prince Hall living in Boston at the time.
Prince Hall Gains His Freedom
The traditional story of Prince Hall says that he was enslaved to William Hall, and gained his freedom in April 1770 — one month after the Boston Massacre.
Paperwork on file at the Boston Athenaeum Library, dated April 9, 1770, refers to a man named Prince Hall, but there is no conclusive evidence it refers to Prince Hall who went on to establish African Lodge #1.
According to the Certificate of Manumission, Prince Hall was manumitted — given his freedom — by William Hall. The certificate says, “Prince Hall has lived with us 21 years and served us well upon all occasions, for which we maturely give him his freedom and that is he no longer reckoned a slave, but has been always accounted as a freeman by us, as he has served us faithfully. Upon that account, we have given him his freedom.” Although the wording casts some doubt on Hall’s status, someone who went by the name of Prince Hall was freed from service to William Hall.
Whether it was Prince Hall who founded African Lodge #1 or not is debatable, however, it is clear that a black freeman named Prince Hall made a living in Boston as a tanner. As a freeman, he owned a house; he had his own leather workshop; he paid taxes; he voted.
Prince Hall was also a Patriot for the American Cause and made drumheads for the Boston Regiment of Artillery.
First Black Masons in America
Despite the growing tension between the colonies and Great Britain, Hall and 14 other free black men were made masons in Lodge No. 441 of the Irish Registry, on March 6, 1775. The lodge was attached to the 38th British Foot Infantry, which was stationed at Castle William Island in Boston Harbor. Hall and the others were, in fact, the first people of color to be made Masons in America.
In “Becoming African in America: Race and Nation in the Early Black Atlantic,” author James Sidbury says Hall first petitioned the Boston Grand Lodge for membership but was rejected.
Battle of Bunker Hill
The American Revolutionary War started on April 19, 1775, with the Battle of Lexington and the Battle of Concord. By the end of that fateful day, the British Army found itself trapped in Boston, surrounded by thousands of colonial militiamen and the Siege of Boston was underway. The so-called “Army of Occupation” and British forces maintained their positions until June.
During the night of June 16–17, 1775, American forces snuck onto the heights of Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill, overlooking Boston Harbor, and built fortifications on Breed’s Hill. The position would allow them to fire on the British ships in the harbor with their artillery. The British responded by attacking the American positions in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Various accounts indicate that Prince Hall fought in the battle. Although the British won the battle, the Americans famously gained a significant moral victory, as they proved they could compete with the feared British troops on the field of battle.
African Lodge #1
George Washington took command of the American forces in Boston about a month after Bunker Hill, and the siege continued through the winter. In the spring of 1776, American forces were able to position artillery throughout Boston, including Dorchester Heights — a series of hills that overlooked Boston and the harbor. The move made it impossible for the British to defend the city and the ships, so General William Howe ordered his men to evacuate the city. On March 17, 1776 — British forces sailed away from Boston Harbor, never to return.
Before the British — and the members of Lodge No. 441 — left, Hall and the other Americans were given permission to continue to meet as a lodge and follow the masonic burial rituals. However, they were not allowed to grow the lodge or take on new members. On July 3, 1776, African Lodge #1 was established, with Prince Hall serving as the leader of the lodge, known as “Worshipful Master.”
James Sidbury believes Hall’s lodge may have been the “New World institution to lay claim to ‘Africa’ in its title.”
Soon after, the African Lodge was given permission from merchant John Rowe, the Provincial Grand Master, to participate in the St. John’s Day procession, which recognizes St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. Rowe is most well-known as the owner of one of the tea ships, the Eleanor, which was involved in the Boston Tea Party.
The African Lodge was given permission to operate as a regular masonic lodge on September 29, 1784, and officially became African Lodge #459. The lodge grew, and so did Hall’s prominence.
Hall’s influence has continued to spread, and today there are thousands of lodges and grand lodges that trace back to the Prince Hall Grand Lodge.
Prince Hall and the Abolition Movement in Massachusetts
Not only did Hall use his position in the lodge to spread freemasonry, but he also used it to speak out against slavery and the denial of the rights of African Americans.
Prince Hall’s Petition for Freedom to Massachusetts in 1777
Less than two weeks after George Washington stunned British forces at Trenton and Princeton, Prince Hall and seven other men presented a “petition for freedom” to the Massachusetts Council and House of Representatives. Although it was not the first petition submitted to the Massachusetts government that asked for enslaved people to be freed, it was the first that echoed the language used in the Declaration of Independence. The petition is dated January 13, 1777, and says:
“Whereby they may Be Restored to the Enjoyments of that Which is the Natural Right of all men — and their — Children who were Born in this Land of Liberty may not be held as Slaves after they arrive at the age of Twenty one years so may the Inhabitants of this State No longer chargeable with the inconsistency of acting themselves the part which they condemn and oppose in Others Be prospered in their present Glorious Struggle for Liberty and have those Blessing to them…”
Despite the request, the Massachusetts government — regardless of how the members felt about the issue — was not in a position to do much. They were actively involved in fighting a war with Great Britain for independence. The war had just taken a turn in favor of the American Cause with Washington’s victories, but the outcome of the war was still in doubt. Even if Massachusetts freed enslaved people, they would have gone right back to being enslaved if Britain won the war.
Following the end of the war, Massachusetts banned slavery in 1783. However, blacks and African Americans continued to face discrimination, and were often at risk of being kidnapped, taken away from Massachusetts, and sold into slavery.
The Boston Plan
Under Hall’s leadership, the African Lodge in Boston developed a plan to return to Africa. Known as “The Boston Plan,” it was an early attempt to “return to Africa, our native country…where we shall live among our equals, and be more comfortable and happy, than we can be in our present situation.” A petition was presented to the Massachusetts General Court, requesting funds to secure provisions and supplies for the trip. However, the funding was never granted.
Hall Opens a School for Black Children
Hall was bold and not afraid to take matters into his own hands. He spoke out against the lack of education that was available to African American children — and simply opened a school in his home in 1787.
Prince Hall’s Petition to the General Court in 1788
On February 27, 1788, Prince Hall presented another petition to the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in an effort to end the slave trade in Massachusetts.
It protested the kidnapping of three free African Americans who were taken to the West Indies to be sold as slaves. Hall presented an argument that the threat of being taken was keeping black freemen from working in the shipping industry, which was one of the few professions open to them.
Historians agree that Hall’s petition, along with petitions from a group of Quakers and the Boston clergy, played a key role in ending the slave trade in Massachusetts.
On March 26, 1788, the Massachusetts General Court passed an act “to prevent the Slave Trade, and for granting Relief to the Families of such unhappy Persons as may be Kidnapped or decoyed away from this Commonwealth.”
Prince Hall’s Legacy
Throughout his life, Prince Hall worked for the abolition of slavery, equal rights, and economic and educational advancement in the black community. He used his leadership position as a Freemason and his activism to make a positive impact on the lives of African Americans in Boston. His legacy continues to inspire and influence people today, and he remains an important figure in the history of the African American community and its fight for equality.
Prince Hall died in 1807 and was buried in Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in Boston, one of the notable cemeteries from the colonial era.
Overview of the Life of Prince Hall
This video provides a quick look at the life and career of Prince Hall.