“We Stand on a Level:” Black Freemasons Fight for Parity with White Lodges
Intrepid souls who ventured out into the blizzard in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, on March 7, 1875 might have encountered a singular apparition: a procession of formally-dressed African-American men marching through snow drifts accompanied by “a first-class band.” They were the Brotherhood of Colored Masons, one of many Black-organized masonic lodges that had been fighting literally and symbolically against White hegemony for a century nearly to the day.
The celebration by the Brotherhood of Colored Masons yesterday of the Hundredth Anniversary of Prince Hall’s Admission into the Craft was certainly conducted under most unfavorable circumstances. The snow-storm was at its worst during the procession, and lay often in great drifts across the line of march. Umbrellas afforded little protection against the white clouds of whirling flakes caught up and driven hither and thither by a strong north-west wind, and most of the processionists were well wet through ere the march was over. A first-class band, however, tended somewhat to keep the men’s spirits up; and spite of wind and weather they generally looked jubicund.
The date and procession marked the centennial of the admission of Prince Hall and fourteen other Black men into a British military masonic lodge in Boston on March 6, 1775. It would be another nine years before the Grand Lodge of England permitted Hall and his associates to constitute African Lodge No. 459, and another three years before they would actually receive their charter. Dispensation was granted by British masonic authority; the White masons of Massachusetts refused to recognize their Black brethren. The term of art was that the African Lodge was “clandestine,” not created in a regular or authorized way. The masonic legitimacy of “Prince Hall lodges” is still controversial in seven American states.
However spurious or irregular they were regarded in the United States in 1875, the Grand Lodge of Germany had no problem recognizing Prince Hall lodges. This put the German masons at odds with the White lodges of the United States.
This centennial will be regarded with the more interest because of the recent recognition of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge by the unanimous vote of the convention of the Grand Lodges of Germany—perhaps the grandest event in its history. This endorsement places them, so far as their relations with the great body of the European Masons is concerned, on an equality with the other Masons of this country. More than that—it is a step that may hasten the recognition of the Prince Hall Lodge by the Grand Lodges of the United States, as a denial by them that the Grand Lodge is properly constituted cannot be regarded as otherwise than as an offence by the German Masons, and may lead, as a leading German predicted the action just taken would do, to a discontinuance of intercourse between American and German Masons.
Given that by 1875 the failure of Reconstruction was an accomplished fact, the writer was remarkably optimistic as to the results of German recognition of Prince Hall masons. The article continues:
When once the colored Masons of this country are recognized as brethren of the order by other Masons, there will be no further need of Civil Rights bills and Force bills. The questions of the rights of colored men to vote, to hold office, to ride in public conveyances, to visit theatres, to become guests at public houses, will be settled on the basis of justice.
Nearly seventy years prior to the American Civil War, Prince Hall himself was more pragmatic in his views on race relations. The following excerpt comes from Rev. Jeremy Belknap in response to a query from Judge St. George Tucker of Williamsburg, Virginia, regarding whether harmony existed between Blacks and Whites in Massachusetts in 1795. Tucker quoted Hall whom he consulted in drafting his reply:
Harmony in general (says he) prevails between us as citizens, for the good law of the land does oblige every one to live peaceably with all his fellow citizens, let them be black or white. We stand on a level, therefore no pre-eminence can be claimed on either side. As to our associating, there is here a great number of worthy good men and good citizens, that are not ashamed to take an African by the hand; but yet there are to be seen the weeds of pride, envy, tyranny, and scorn, in this garden of peace, liberty and equality.
Belknap then elaborated on the African Lodge where Hall presided as Master Mason over a membership of thirty persons.
The African Lodge, though possessing a charter from England, meet by themselves; and white masons not more skilled in geometry, will not acknowledge them. The reason given is, that the blacks were made clandestinely in the first place, which, if known, would have prevented them from receiving a charter. But this inquiry would not have been made about white lodges, many of which have not conformed to the rules of masonry. The truth is, they are ashamed of being on equality with blacks.
Prince Hall was royal in the estimation of his fellow masons but otherwise of humble origin. Tracing his ancestry is challenging as his name was common in the Colonial era. He was born around 1738, possibly in Barbados, and may have been enslaved in his youth. He received manumission papers in 1770 and later made his living as a leatherworker in Boston. It’s possible that he served briefly in the Revolutionary War; he petitioned the American government to allow Blacks to serve in the military, and six persons bearing his name are listed in the pension rolls. His petition for military service by Blacks was denied—until the British government promised freedom for Blacks who fought on its side. In 1777 he lobbied Massachusetts to abolish slavery. In 1787 he petitioned Massachusetts to provide schools for Black children. When that didn’t come to pass he started such a school in his home.
When Hall died in 1807 there were African lodges in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Providence, Rhode Island under the auspices of the African Lodge of Boston. The lodge in Providence may have been reconstituted in Liberia when its members emigrated to that place in the early nineteenth century, a movement Hall supported.
America’s first White masonic lodge was active in Philadelphia by 1731. Its fourteen founding members included Benjamin Franklin. Although freemasonry dates at least to the late sixteenth century in Scotland and to the early eighteenth century in England, masons often cite their beginnings with the building of the biblical King Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem.
When Moses was about to erect the sanctuary, and, afterward, when Solomon built the Temple at Jerusalem for the worship of the only true and living God, they chose, from among the people, those whose wisdom and zeal for the true faith attached them to the worship of the Most High, and committed to them, the erection of those works of piety. It was on those great occasions that our predecessors appeared to the world possessing a greater degree of knowledge than the multitude, labouring more successfully, and exhibiting to every beholder, monuments of art completed without discordant voices. At the building of the Temple, our society received a stability of form and a regularity of working, which the ravages of time have not impaired. Solomon, who was divinely inspired, found it indispensably necessary, in prosecuting such an undertaking as he had been directed, that the workmen should be a regularly organized body, that every part of the building might be executed without the least confusion, and with the greatest despatch.
In their earliest form masonic guilds were actually limited to stonemasons. The guilds trained apprentices and regulated their craft similar to modern labor unions. Over time the guilds started to accept “speculative” non-stonemasons who were primarily interested in rituals, history and mathematics. The guilds and lodges had social as well as professional benefits, and those fraternal, charitable and civic aspects of freemasonry predominate today.
The main tenets of Freemasonry are Fraternity, Relief, and Truth; masons are expected to be tolerant, forthright, charitable, and honest in their private and public relationships. There is no explicit religious requirement for membership beyond belief in a supreme being whom freemasons style as “The Great Architect of the Universe.” The “G” in the seal shown below stands for “Geometry.” The square and compass symbolize moral virtue and self-discipline, respectively. The “All-Seeing Eye” represents the Eye of God that is watching over mankind. The rituals and regalia are allegorical reminders of proper conduct and social conventions that masons share with their brethren. Freemasonry is limited to adult males but today there are a number of organizations for women and young persons within the lodges.
Freemasons are officially neutral in matters of race, but in practice there has been widespread discrimination for many years. The following excerpt is from 1871.
Differences of religious faith among Masons would not create one-tenth part of the commotion, as the raising of this question of race does. On this question of affiliation with races of all colors, or of one particular color, the men of the past, the men of the present, and the men of the future, have distinct ideas and feeling. The first say “no” to the petition, “under any and all circumstances, absolutely and emphatically, no.” The second say, “We do not seek it; we do not object to it under some circumstances; with restrictions we should be willing, without restrictions, unwilling. In fact, we have not made up our minds.” The third say, “We accept it, freely accept it, as the logical sequence of our being Masons, of our professing Masonry; for Masonry knows no race, knows all races alike.” The first has undergone ossification, is already fossil. The second is playing at tilting, see-saw; up and down; this way, that way; undecided; timid; too moral to do an injustice and defend it; too feeble in spirit to dare to be just. The third, positive, progressive, in harmony with the tendencies of the age, hopeful, full of faith, actuated by feelings in accordance with the doctrines of the common fatherhood, universal brotherhood, and the claims of truth and justice to service and submission from every human soul.
Freemasonry was not merely a symbolic fellowship for African Americans but a source of relationships that had real and lasting benefits. In 1906 Grand Master Frederick S. Monroe of Massachusetts related Prince Hall’s story of a colored man whose masonic affiliation saved him and his non-masonic shipmates from being sold into slavery.
The evils which slavery made possible did not cease with its abolition, for on the 27th of February, 1788, we find Prince Hall in a memorial addressed to the senate and house of representatives of the state of Massachusetts, protesting against the kidnapping of colored men for the West Indian slave trade, a favorite way of doing this being to employ them at some work between decks, to clap on the hatches and carry them to sea.
One of these stolen colored men was a Freemason and a member of African Lodge 459. The merchant to whom he was offered for sale also belonged to the fraternity, and he made himself known as a brother of the order, with the result that he not only secured his own liberty and restoration to home and friends, but also that of his associates who were not Masons.
Notable Black masons include Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. Du Bois, Duke Ellington, Medgar Evers, Paul Robeson, Nelson Mandela, the late U.S. Representative from Georgia John R. Lewis, and both Martin Luther King, Jr.’s father and grandfather. King’s own induction was planned for 1968, the year in which he was assassinated. In 1907 the Washington Bee recorded the induction of Booker T. Washington, educator and president of the Tuskegee Institute:
The degrees in freemasonry were conferred on Booker T. Washington by William Lloyd Marshall, grand master of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge, F. and A.M., of Massachusetts, last night at the apartments of the colored Masons, 446 Tremont Street.
The work was performed in a lodge specially convened for that purpose and constitutes a very unique departure as only men of mark are selected for this honor, which can only be conferred by the grand master.
H.C. Binford, grand master of the Grand Lodge of Alabama, in whose jurisdiction Dr. Washington resides, gave his official sanction to the granting of the degrees, and sent a letter of congratulation.
During his lifetime Prince Hall issued several public “charges” or exhortations to masons to cherish their past and to live up to their ideals despite adversity. The following charge was issued on June 24, 1797, in celebration of the Feast of Saint John the Baptist whom masons revere.
Live and act as Masons, that you may die as Masons; let those despisers see, altho’ many of us cannot read, yet by our searches and researches into men and things, we have supplied that defect, and if they will let us we shall call ourselves a charter’d lodge, of just and lawful Masons; be always ready to give an answer to those that ask you a question; give the right hand of affection and fellowship to whom it justly belongs let their colour and complexion be what it will: let their nation be what it may, for they are your brethren, and it is your indispensable duty to do so; let them as Masons deny this, and we & the world know what to think of them be they ever so grand: for we know this was Solomon’s creed, Solomon’s creed did I say, it is the decree of the Almighty, and all Masons have learnt it: tis plain market language and plan and true facts need no apologies.