Prince Hall, one of Boston’s most prominent citizens during the revolutionary period, was the founder of the African Lodge of the Honorable Society of Free and Accepted Masons of Boston, the world’s first lodge of black Freemasonry and the first society in American history devoted to social, political, and economic improvement. Not much is known of Hall’s life before the Revolution. He was born in 1735 and was the slave of William Hall of Boston. His son, Primus, was born in 1756 to Delia, a servant in another household. In 1762, at the age of 27, Hall joined the Congregational Church, and soon after, married an enslaved woman named Sarah Ritchie. Eight years later, after Sarah’s death, he married Flora Gibbs of Gloucester.
A month after the Boston Massacre, William Hall freed Prince; his certificate of manumission read that he was “no longer Reckoned a slave, but [had] always accounted as a free man.” Hall made his living as a huckster (peddler), caterer and leather dresser, and was listed as a voter and a taxpayer. He owned a small house and leather workshop in Boston.
It is believed that he was one of the six black men of Massachusetts named Prince Hall listed in military records of the Revolution, and he may well have fought at Bunker Hill. A bill he sent to a Colonel Crafts indicates that he crafted five leather drumheads for the Boston Regiment of Artillery in April, 1777.
In 1775, Hall and fourteen other free blacks joined a British army lodge of Masons who were stationed in Boston. After the British departed, they formed their own lodge, African Lodge No. 1, though it would be twelve years before they received a permanent charter. Hall became the lodge’s first Grand Master.
Hall was active in the affairs of Boston’s black community, using his position as “Worshipful Master” of the black Masons to speak out against slavery and the denial of black rights. For years, he protested the lack of schools for black children and finally established one in his own home.
In his last published speech, his charge to the African Lodge in June 1797, Hall spoke of mob violence against blacks: “Patience, I say; for were we not possessed of a great measure of it, we could not bear up under the daily insults we meet with in the streets of Boston, much more on public days of recreation. How, at such times, are we shamefully abused, and that to such a degree, that we may truly be said to carry our lives in our hands, and the arrows of death are flying about our heads….tis not for want of courage in you, for they know that they dare not face you man for man, but in a mob, which we despise…”
Prince Hall died in 1807 at the age of 72. A year later, his lodge honored him by changing its name to Prince Hall Grand Lodge.