I recently attended a large public Masonic event with a friend who is not in the Masonic community at all. He seemed to enjoy himself, but at one point in time, he kind of paused, glanced around the room, and leaned in to whisper to me, “Everyone in this room is white. What gives?” Knowing that this would take a bit of an explanation, I told them I would have to explain on the ride home. Have you ever noticed this yourself? Do you know why this is the case? The reason may astound you, especially in this day and age.
UGLE was formed in 1717, and freemasonry began in the United States around 1740. Let’s put that into perspective. The US was not its own country at this point, as the Revolutionary War didn’t occur until 1775, slavery wasn’t abolished until 1865, and electricity didn’t enter homes until 1882. So, as you can imagine, the people forming Lodges in the American colonies were all white landowners, many of whom owned slaved and all of whom lit their house by candle. Now, who can be made a Mason? Ritual states that an idiot, a madman, or a fool cannot be made a Mason, for fairly obvious reasons. However, the ritual also states that they must be a man, of lawful age, and freeborn, meaning no one who is a slave or was once a slave can become a Mason. Now, that last requirement is really not such a big deal now days, where the point is kind of glossed over and assumed; but you bet it was a big deal in the 1740’s when Lodges were popping up all over the colonies.
To give you an idea what it was like at that time, Albert Pike was quoted stating, “”I am not inclined to mettle in the matter. I took my obligations to white men, not to Negroes. When I have to accept Negroes as brothers or leave Masonry, I shall leave it.” There were some black Masons at this time, usually from non-segregated jurisdictions. However, if they had to go to a segregated jurisdiction, they would often not be recognized. What’s more, while black Masons could meet as a Lodge, join the processions on St. John’s day, and give funeral rites, they could not preform degrees, or any other essential functions of a Lodge.
Prince Hall Then
Sometime before the beginning of the Revolutionary War, a black, freeborn man named Prince Hall approached St. John’s Lodge in Boston, Massachusetts along with fourteen other men, seeking admittance to the order. They were turned away. They persevered however, and turned to Lodge #441, which was a member of the Grand Lodge of Ireland. The fifteen men were approved to join, and received their degree on March 6, 1775. Just so you have an idea of when this was happening, Parliament had declared Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion that February, and the beginnings of the Revolutionary War took place that April. In 1782, the Lodge became attached to a military unit made up of British soldiers stationed in Boston. When the soldiers moved on, the black men decided to form their own Lodge, called African Lodge No.1, and Prince Hall was named the Grand Master.
They were, however, unable to create a charter, so they contacted UGLE for one. By some miracle, they granted it, and African Lodge No. 1 was changed to African Lodge No. 459. This was the first, officially recognized, all black Lodge in America. The African Lodges grew quickly in the area, so much so that Prince Hall had been named Provincial Grand Master for the African Lodges. In March of 1797, another African Lodge was formed in Philadelphia, and in June of that same year, another in Rhode Island. Despite their popularity and growth, the majority of Masons refused to recognize members of the African Lodges, even though they had received a charter from UGLE, and therefore were entitled to all Masonic rights, such as visitation to other Lodges. A few Grand Masters were sympathetic, but knew it would be a long time before recognition (that could hopefully lead to integration) would occur. If only they knew how long it would take.
Prince Hall died in 1807, and the three African Lodges got together to form a Grand Lodge, which they renamed Prince Hall Grand Lodge, in his honor.
Prince Hall Now
What you’re about to read will surprise you. It may infuriate you, or make you question your membership within the Masonic community. If you feel this way, I highly encourage you to help facilitate within your own community events between your Lodge and your Local Prince Hall Lodge.
As of the last list compiled (which was 2011), do not recognize any member of a Prince Hall Lodge to be a Mason:
Let me say that again. Even though members of this Lodge can trace their roots back to African Lodge No.1, and have charters issued by the United Grand Lodge of England, these states still, well over 200 years later, do not recognize these men as Masons.
Many other states recognize the members as Masons, but do not extend to them full recognition. So, they could come and visit the “mainstream” (common colloquialism for majority-white Lodges), but they could not say, join (they would have to start all over), or vote. In fact the first Lodge to recognize Prince Hall Lodges was Connecticut, and that wasn’t until 1989. No, that’s not a typo, that’s almost 200 years later. Nebraska was the second state to recognize them in 1990, but made bigger waves by also allowing visitation.
Prince hall also has their own appendant Masonic groups. However, these are hardly recognized by any of the mainstream Masonic groups. Their Royal Arch Grand Chapters are recognized by 9 U.S. Jursdictions, and 1 Canadian one. Their Cryptic Mason Grand Councils are recognized by 3 states, and their Knights Templar Grand Commadaries are also recognized by 3 (different) states. The only state that recognizes all three groups is Illinois. In 2001, the Shines of North America voted to recognize all Prince Hall Shrines.
Now, I want to be very clear, that this does not mean that a black man cannot join a mainstream Lodge. To my knowledge, there is no Grand Lodge that has laws against this. However, actually becoming a member as a black man may be easier in some states than others.
So, what are Prince Hall Lodges like today? To be honest, I am not terribly familiar with them as they currently exist. In my city, PH has their own Lodge, Shrine, OES, Scottish Rite, and other auxiliary groups. They tend to be much more hidden from the public eye than mainstream Masonry, and to be honest, I can’t blame them. They have created a culture completely unlike mainstream Masonry. Nothing less than suit and tie is worn to Lodge, along with their signature white gloves. Officers often wear tuxes, even for a simple business meeting. OES is a much bigger deal. They actually use a different degree system, which includes the Queen of the South degree, which was the degree that originally served as the bridge between the OES and Daughters of the Nile degree. They have their own Shrine women’s auxiliary called Daughters of Isis. They also have their own Scottish Rite women’s auxiliary called the Order of the Golden Circle. It is a very different Masonic community, and I am sad to say I know next to nothing about it.
If there is a Prince Hall visitation day in your area, I highly recommend you do your best to attend. If it doesn’t exist, help organize one. They are our brothers and sisters in Masonry, we have so much to learn from each other, and it makes my heart heavy that we have pushed them away for so long, and continue to do so.