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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Prince Hall

Prince Hall’s organizational efforts took place at a propitious time in early African American political and social history. Following the upsurge of the black slave population in the mid-eighteenth century, the revolutionary and post-revolutionary periods saw an increase in the founding of black benevolent societies, churches, schools, and mutual-aid groups. Drawing upon a new sense of African identity, derived possibly from the presence of newly arrived countrymen, African American activists frequently denominated their institutions as “African.” This racial self-consciousness was enhanced by the increasing formation of black households and kinship groups in New England, New York, and New Jersey, as slaves were freed.

If Prince Hall had not actually lived, he most certainly would have been invented—which is to say that the pioneering socialization he achieved for and among early black Americans would have been realized sooner or later by some colonial black American. Whether in seemingly passive enslavement or as modestly protesting free persons, blacks were clearly too vital, too fundamentally hardy, to have long been excluded from dignified social groupings, and, thereafter, from variously finding their own American way.

Hall organized some fourteen free black Bostonians in 1775 into a society that eventually became an official, degree-granting Masonic order, “African Lodge No. 459” (later No. 370) on May 6, 1787. As Master of this first lodge, Hall continued his work and brought together an association of black Masonic Grand Lodges that would proliferate into what is today a flourishing, worldwide fraternal society. (In 1977 there were more than 500,000 members of such lodges.) Hall is also remembered as one of the more prolific writers of early black America.

Born sometime between 1735 and 1738 at a place still unknown, Hall seems to have been a slave or indentured servant in the Boston household of leather-dresser William Hall from 1749 until 1770, when he was freed. Thereafter he made a decent living as a leather-dresser, caterer, and perhaps as a shop owner. From the year 1762, Hall was a member of the Reverend Andrew Crosswell’s Congregational church on School Street, and “in full communication therewith, for a number of years,” he may well have functioned as an unordained preacher to fellow Masons and other interested blacks on the premises of the School Street church, which was abandoned in 1764, when an epidemic of small-pox struck Boston.

From 1777 until four months before his death in December 1807, Prince Hall engaged in activities central to the development of a vital African American identity. He composed and published a group of writings, including letters to London Masonic officials, the Countess of Huntingdon, Boston newspapers, and prominent blacks in Providence and Philadelphia, but most notably he published a series of petitions on behalf of his Masons and free blacks in general. He solicited the abolition of Massachusetts slavery (1777). He petitioned for the proffered but rejected military assistance of some 700 blacks for use by Governor James Bowdoin (who was trying to put down Shays’s Rebellion in the western part of the state, 1786). In January of 1787, with 73 other blacks, Hall petitioned the General Court for financial or other assistance in support of plans for blacks to emigrate to Africa. In October of that year, he petitioned, unsuccessfully, for public education for children of taxpaying Boston blacks.

In his own home for most of 1789, Hall housed the Reverend John Marrant (1755–1791), then en route back to London from a lengthy preaching tour of eastern Canada. In London in 1785, Marrant had become the first black American ordained minister. Hall also made Marrant a chaplain for his Lodge; for the Lodge Marrant preached at Fanueil Hall an inspirational sermon published later that year.

Hall himself is on record in the “Taxing Books” as having paid both real estate and poll taxes from 1780 onward. He also petitioned, this time successfully, on behalf of three Boston blacks who were kidnapped into slavery but quickly released (1788). In 1792 he published a racially stimulating Charge to fellow Lodge members; in 1797 he published another such Charge. On May 6, 1806, Hall and a white man, John Vinal of Boston, once a member of Hall’s School Street church, gave a  deposition acknowledging joint receipt of three thousand dollars for the sale of the church property. Finally, on August 31, 1807, Hall signed another deposition, in effect a testimony of Vinal’s character; both of these depositions remain in manuscript.

Prince Hall was much concerned with the organization and dignifying of his fellow Masons, to be sure, but he was just as concerned with the future of the enslaved black American: because black slavery was primarily a white American issue, he was necessarily concerned with the future of America and Americans.

William H. Robinson
Rhode Island College

Philip M. Richards
Colgate University

In the Heath Anthology
To the Honorable Council & House of Representatives for the State of Massachusetts-Bay in General Court assembled January 13th 1777. (1788)
A Charge, Delivered to the African Lodge, June 24, 1797, at Menotomy. (1797)

Other Works

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Africans in America
  A political biography of Prince Hall.

Bill of Sale for drumheads, Prince Hall to Boston Regiment
  A scan of the document and a more readable electronic transcription.

The Prince Hall Story
  The history of Hall and his legacy, Prince Hall Masonry, written by Dr. Charles Harris Wesley, PhD.

Secondary Sources

Sidney Kaplan, "Prince Hall: Organizer," in The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution 1770-1800, 1973

Joseph A. Walker, Black Squares & Compass/200 Years of Prince Hall/Freemasonry, 1979

Maurice Wallace, "'Are We Men?': Prince Hall, Martin Delaney, and the Masculine Ideal in Black Freemasonry, 1775-1865," American Literary History 9(3): 396-424, 1997

Charles H. Wesley, Prince Hall: Life and Legacy, 1977