Prince Hall (1738-1807), known as the father of Black Freemasonry in the United States, worked as a minister, abolitionist, civil rights activist, and proponent of education for black children. Details on Hall’s birth and early life are vague; the first record of Hall reveals he was a servant to William Hall of Boston. Legally a slave (although not in practice), Hall was freed following the Boston Massacre. As an adult, Hall became a leader within the African-American community of Boston. In 1775, Hall and fourteen other black men were initiated into Military Lodge No. 441 in Boston, which was then affiliated with the British Army. Following the Revolution, facing discrimination, (to be initiated into a Lodge, a Mason needs to gain a unanimous vote, but as votes are contributed anonymously, it would be impossible to identify any one dissenting individual), black Masons began urging Hall to organize a separate lodge. African Lodge #1 was formed as 1776, and Hall continued as Worshipful Master. In 1848, African Grand Lodges across the country changed their name to the Prince Hall Grand Lodge. For more information on Hall, see Prince Hall: Life and Legacy, by Charles H. Wesley (1983).
The W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University has recently given Houghton a Masonic initiation certificate signed by Hall (above). Dated June 23, 1799, the certificate initiates abolitionist Richard P.G. Wright, and is signed by George Medallion (SW), Jube Hill (JW) and William Smith (as secretary), and by Hall. A detail of the document, showing Hall’s signature, is below.
This important document is the latest in a series of gifts from the Du Bois Institute to Houghton Library designed to strengthen Harvard’s increasingly significant research resources for African and African-American history and literature. Past gifts to Houghton Library have included the papers of playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (*2005M-10); a beautifully illuminated 17th-century Ethiopian manuscript prayerbook; the unique first issue of Fortune’s Freeman; and numerous other rare books and recordings. Joint purchases have included the papers of Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka; novelists Chinua Achebe and John Edgar Wideman (*1999M-1(b)); writer Albert Murray (*1998M-1), including his correspondence with Ralph Ellison; and several smaller collections (at Houghton), and the June Jordan papers and the Shirley Graham Du Bois papers (at Schlesinger Library) (Links are provided to the finding aids of processed collections).
f MS Am 2642. Houghton Library, Harvard University. Images may not be used or reproduced without permission.