THE PRINCE HALL STORY
By Dr. CHARLES HARRIS WESLEY, Ph.D.
Prince Hall, our founder, was a great American and was the first Grand Master associated with our first Grand Lodge and its expansion. His name is carried and borne by masonic organizations throughout the United States. We in America celebrated in 1976 the 200th anniversary of our Declaration of Independence. Nineteen seventy-six was also the 201st anniversary of Prince Hall Masonry in the United States.
Little is known about the circumstances of Prince Hall’s birth and early childhood. In Barbados, West Indies where it is rumored that he was born, baptismal church records were examined without a find of the name Prince Hall.
The first official record that we have of Prince Hall is a manumission paper found in the Boston Athenaeum. The William Hall family of Boston, Massachusetts filed this document in 1770. Manumission papers were utilized at that time to free slaves. This document states, in part, that Prince Hall lived with and served the William Hall family for 21 years and received his release from the bonds of slavery on the 9th day of April 1770. Prince Hall would have been approximately 35 years of age at that time making his year of birth 1735.
The marriage records for Prince Hall reveal that he was married on November 2, 1763, to Miss Sarah Ritchie of Boston, Massachusetts. Six years later, Sarah passed away. Prince Hall married again on August 22, 1770, to Miss Flora Gibbs of Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Prince Hall was a diligent man conducting his business as a leather-dresser and caterer at the “Sign of the Golden Fleece” on Water Street in the City of Boston, hiring large numbers of free Black men as needed for his catering affairs. The Golden Fleece was not a tavern, as believed by some, but rather a place where Prince Hall had a shop and subsequently, a meeting place for African Lodge No 1.
A significant event occurred in Masonry on March 6, 1775. On this date Prince Hall and fourteen other free Black men obtained the degrees of Freemasonry in Lodge No. 441, a military lodge working under the Grand Lodge of Ireland and attached to one of the regiments in the British army under the command of General Gage. Lodge No. 441 eventually moved to New York State. The relocation of the lodge did not leave our Black brethren without covering because the Worshipful Master, Brother J. B. Batt, had left them with what was known, during that period as a “permit” which at this time would be termed a “Dispensation.” This permit gave them the right to observe St. John’s Day and to bury their dead. This permit was legal and regular in every particular, having been issued in accordance with the custom and usage of that period, however, it did not give our Black brethren the authority to initiate other persons into the fraternity.
Prince Hall enlisted as a soldier in the American Revolution and served in the 2nd and 6th Regiments of Massachusetts with steadiness and valor. It was said that, “Prince Hall was not only a good soldier, but he was also a statesman.”
As the years passed, and with the war ending in 1783, Prince Hall saw the need for Masonic recognition, and on March 2, 1784, unsuccessfully petitioned the Grand Lodge of England for a warrant charter. This letter of request was signed only by Prince Hall and was probably not considered a sufficient application on behalf of the lodge. A second letter was sent by Prince Hall, dated June 30, 1784, signed by Prince Hall as Master of African Lodge No.1, attested by Cato Underwood, Secretary. Fees sent but not received were the apparent reason for England’s failure to send the charter, though it was prepared and issued under the date of September 29, 1784. Three years later Prince Hall made a third request for a charter, selecting as his messenger, Captain James Scott, brother in law of Governor John Hancock of Massachusetts, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Captain Scott delivered the letter and the fees to the Grand Lodge of England, successfully returning the three year old warrant charter under the denomination of “African Lodge No. 459”, to Prince Hall on April 29, 1787. Prince Hall acknowledged to the Grand Lodge of England, that he received the coveted warrant charter.
African Lodge No. 459, was constituted on May 6, 1787, at the Golden Fleece on Water Street, in Boston, Massachusetts with Prince Hall as Worshipful Master. Charter No. 459, is in the possession of “The Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge Free and Accepted Masons of Massachusetts,” and is kept under lock and key. Charter No. 459, a historical treasure, is believed to be the only extant original eighteenth century charter issued to any American lodge by the Grand Lodge of England. This document is of historical importance to Prince Hall Masons.
African Grand Lodge was organized in Boston, Massachusetts in 1791 by an assembly of the Craft with Prince Hall as its first Grand Master. Prince Hall passed into the Great Unknown in Boston, on December 4, 1807. At the assembly of the craft in 1808 the name “African Grand Lodge,” was changed to “Prince Hall Grand Lodge, F. & A. M., of Massachusetts.” The Deputy Grand Master, Brother Nero Prince, became its Grand Master. With growth and expansion Prince Hall Masonry moved South and West.
It takes three or more Lodges to form a Grand Lodge. Hannibal Lodge No. 1, of San Francisco, Philomathean Lodge No. 2, of Sacramento, and Victoria Lodge No. 3, of San Francisco, are the three Lodges, which formed our great Grand Lodge. Hence, the ninth Grand Lodge was organized in California. It was founded in San Francisco, on Tuesday, June 19, 1855 under the title of, “Grand Lodge, Free, Ancient and Accepted York Masons.” Later it was titled “Sovereign Grand Lodge.” We now bear the most distinguished title of “The Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge, Free and Accepted Masons, State of California, Incorporated.
The Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge, Free and Accepted Masons of the State of California in conjunction with the Fresno Masonic King Solomon Lodge #6 and Fresno Unified School District hosted a special cornerstone celebration on November 1 commemorating the recent opening of Rutherford B. Gaston Sr. Middle School.