Prince Hall Masons display African American legacy of unity, work, progress

| September 25, 2017

prince_hallBy S Thomas

Special to Frost Illustrated

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of driving my father to Kansas City to a National Masonic Convention. I was floored by the quantity and variety of people of color with whom I came in contact! I met and rubbed shoulders with all walks of life from across the entire country and beyond—representatives from all 50 states and beyond. There were men and women from Hawaii, Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, Bahamas and even Japan.

After witnessing Kansas City, I just had to attend the local Founder’s Day Service honoring Prince Hall. I needed to see if what I witnessed in Kansas City was a fluke. I assure you that it definitely was not!

Oftentime’s, people of color get an unsubstantiated rap full of negativity, including a reputation of being notoriously late, unorganized, ignorant and violent (just to name a few). The reality is that in any group of people, there is always a bad apple or two, sometimes an entire handful. Never is the whole bushel bad—unless the tree is bad itself. Like the fruit tree that did not bear fruit in the day of Jesus, it shall wither and die.

People of color are a powerful contributing part of our nation, state, city and communities. The Founder’s Day program was just one illustration, amongst many, of all that is positive when we band together. People of color have a long tradition of coming together for positive change that is as old as our great country itself. Prince Hall is a shining model of that fact.

The Founder’s Day celebration took place on Sept. 17 at Pilgrim Baptist Church, 1331 Gay St., in Fort Wayne. I wanted to know what Founder’s Day is. Who was Prince Hall? Who would celebrate him in this way? There was no shortage of offered information from the crowd of approximately 500 men and women who were in attendance.

What is founder’s Day? That can only be answered by first understanding who Prince Hall was and how he was connected to the Freemasons.

Christopher Hodapp’s Freemasons for Dummies (pp. 40) says:

“Prince Hall was a fascinating man. At various times in his life he was a leather-worker, soldier, civic leader, caterer, educator, property owner, and abolitionist. He fought for the establishment of schools for black children in Boston and opened a school in his own home. In 1787, as a registered voter, he successfully petitioned the Massachusetts legislature to protect free Negroes from being kidnapped and sold into slavery. To the day he died on December 4, 1807, he always referred to himself as an African.”

How was Hall connected to the Freemasons? The Honorable Most Worshipful Grand Master Ron E. Lewis (my current understanding is Lewis’ position is the equivalent to the governor of the state of Indiana within the organization) gave amazing details. “There is so much to be said how can I briefly surmise? First, Prince Hall is our founder. I want you to know and share that this is about him,” explained Lewis.

Staying with the spirit of Lewis, I will quote extensively from Hodapp for the sake of concision and accuracy that mirrored the information from Lewis and all others that I came into contact with. Hodapp does an excellent job connecting the dots of Prince Hall the person and Prince Hall the mason by stating:

“A mason named Prince Hall is considered to be the father of Freemasonry in the African American community. Little is known of his early life, but most evidence today suggests that he was born in Africa and brought to America as a slave in his early teen. His Master, William Hall of Boston, manumitted (freed) him after 21 years, and he probably took his last name from his Master’s household.

“Prince Hall and several other black Bostonians were interested in becoming Masons and forming a lodge for other free Negroes. On March 6, 1775, Prince Hall and 14 other black men were initiated into Lodge No. 441, an Irish military lodge attached to the 38th Foot regiment, garrisoned at castle William (what is now Fort Independence) in Boston Harbor. The Master of the lodge was Sergeant John Batt, and the lodge conferred the Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason degrees on the men in one day.

Lodge No. 441 granted these 15 Masons a special dispensation to meet as African Lodge, which allowed them to march in processions and perform funeral services, but not to initiate new members. Black men would somehow have to receive their degrees in other lodges, but they could then join African Lodge.

“The British Army fled Boston Harbor in 1776. Prince Hall and many of his brethren joined the Revolution and enlisted in the Continental Army. Hall himself is believed to have fought at Bunker Hill. African Lodge survived the war and, by its end, had 33 members.

“After the revolution ended, American Freemasonry was in an organizational turmoil. Because most of the lodges in America had been authorized by English (both Ancient and Modern), Irish, or Scottish Grand Lodge warrants, the new states created new Grand Lodges to administer the lodges within their borders. In fact, several states (including Massachusetts) formed two Grand Lodges, continuing the Ancients-and-Moderns feud.

“When Prince Hall and African Lodge sought a charter from the new Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, they were turned down. Although Freemasonry’s goals of equality were lofty, the white American Masons of the period would not rise above the prejudices of their place and time, and they shunned Hall’s requests. Frustrated, in 1784, African Lodge petitioned the Grand Lodge of England for a new charter. It was granted in September but took three years to be delivered to Boston. On May 6, 1787, the lodge officially became Lodge No. 459 of the Grand Lodge of England.

“Whether it was out of true Masonic brotherly love and friendship or an opportunity for the Grand Master of England (who just happened to be the Duke of Cumberland and the brother of King George III) to tweak the nose of white Americans by authorizing a new lodge of black men on American soil is unknown. African Lodge forwarded its annual dues payments to London each year, but repeated communication to the Grand Lodge after receiving the charter was ignored and unanswered for years. In 1792, after being visited by black Freemasons from Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, African Lodge authorized the creation of a lodge in each of those states, under authority of its English charter.

“African Lodge was stricken from the rolls of the Grand Lodge of England in 1813 after its annual dues payments stopped arriving in London. This isn’t surprising—England and the United States were at war again. Clearly the Grand Lodge of England had no further desire to communicate or even acknowledge them, and England never sent any correspondence informing them of their administrative fate. The lodge tried one last time in 1824 to request clarification of its status and a renewed charter from London. It, too, was ignored.

“After years of continued silence from London, in 1827 African Lodge declared itself to be its own Grand Lodge, just as most of the Grand Lodges in the new United States had done after the Revolution. Between itself and the other two lodges it had chartered, these three lodges became the origin of black Freemasonry in North America. In honor of its founder, it was eventually renamed Prince Hall Grand Lodge, and today there are more than 4,000 Prince Hall—affiliated lodges worldwide in 45 independent jurisdictions with approximately 250,000 members. It is interesting to note that Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Massachusetts remains the only American Masonic body still in possession of its charter from England, and that it predates most of the other Grand Lodges in the United States.”

In summary, Founder’s Day is a day to celebrate an African on American soil whom men and women may emulate in this turbulent day and time. He was an example of one man standing tall as a man of perseverance, dignity, integrity and determination against what must have seemed like insurmountable odds.

The men, (and women who supported the masonic men) done an outstanding job. They stood tall, shoulders back, and their chins up in an amazing display that showed their regalia! What a site to see. They were fine examples of men being men, prompt, organized, and united from beginning to end.

After the program, I had the pleasure of speaking with several members from all across this great state of Indiana. Lewis explained, “Each state celebrates Founder’s Day independently, about the second week of September, which is believed to be close to Prince Hall’s birthday. We travel the state from year to year, city to city for Founder’s Day. We are not isolated to just one city. We are transient. This year happens to be the year for Fort Wayne. I’ve enjoyed the hospitality and I would return.”

Lewis also spoke the same sentiments of the other men by saying, “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed and was impressed by the message by Pastor Clarence Hicks Jr. , ‘the true Spirit of Brotherly Love’ from Romans 12:9-13.  It was on point.”

I spoke also with Past Grand Master Mc Murphy Hues from Anderson, Indiana, and Deputy Grand Master and Mister of Ceremony Kenneth A. Washington, who also mirrored the sentiments of Lewis. They informed me of Prince Hall’s legacy and both expressed that they were “proud to be a part of a legacy of a man who shoulders help bear the weight of American history.”

All those to whom I spoke reverberated the same message, even as I asked them the question, “How has this organization affected you personally?”  The answer was so simple yet profound: “This organization has made me a better person, man, father, husband and citizen.”

Little do they know, I was in awe. I believe that the character that they display is a prime representation of what was, is and shall continue to be the best of America. Anderson said a mouthful when asked, “What would you like the people to know?” His answer: “The order is alive and well. Let it be known, we are still in existence and very relevant to the time.”

From a grassroots perspective, I concur. They do their work well and with purpose without a whole lot of noise and fuss. A lesson most of us, that calls ourselves human, should learn.

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Category: Civil Rights, History, International

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Frost Illustrated is Fort Wayne's oldest weekly newspaper. Your Independent Voice in the Community, featuring news & views of African Americans since 1968.

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