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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 476


This is the grave of Prince Hall.

No one knows when Prince Hall was born. It’s generally considered to be between 1735 and 1738. No one knows where he was born either. After all, he was a slave. He didn’t come from Africa, but whether he born in England or Massachusetts–the two mostly likely places–will never probably be known. Pretty much all we know is that by 1770, he was free. No one knows when or why. At some point he learned to read and write. There’s also evidence that he joined the Congregational Church in 1762. As a free man, he worked in a number of jobs, including as a peddler and leatherworker. At some point, he owned his own home and paid taxes on it.

Now, during the American Revolution, the British figured out what the North would figure out during the Civil War–that slaves would leave their masters in exchange for freedom. The British weren’t initially prepared for this–the same thing happened in the War of 1812. But they recognized it pretty quickly and acted upon it. Now, this did a couple of things. First, it meant that lots of slaves started fighting for the British. But second, it means that the Continental Army realized it had a problem on its hands and it started welcoming black soldiers, at least to a limited extent. That was especially true in places where slavery was weak, such as Massachusetts. Hall actually created a petition to the Massachusetts government to allow African-Americans to fight. Initially, this was declined but then when the British started recruiting black soldiers, it was accepted. Hall himself probably served although this can’t be guaranteed 100%.

The postwar world saw Hall and others demand equal rights. But what would Massachusetts whites do? People such as Elizabeth Freeman did the hard work to end slavery in the state. But true equality was fleeting. So Hall became a Boston leader in promoting the black community. He organized and hosted educational events for instance. But his real contribution was in creating a lodge for black Freemasons. Because the ideal of freemasonry included freedom and liberty, it became an avenue for black self-assertion. Hall and others applied to join the white lodge. They were denied, as the American Revolution was an extremely white supremacist event. So they decided to start their own. They founded African Lodge No. 1. Lodge was named the Grand Master.

But white supremacy still reared its ugly head. The lodge was pretty much name only and was not recognized by the white Masons. So they appealed straight to the Grand Lodge of England. The English didn’t really care if African-Americans started their own lodge, so they were fine with it. In 1784, they were issued their own charter. Hall became a major and active leader in the movement and thus rose, being named a Provincial Grand Master in 1791. In the 1790s, Hall organized new lodges in Philadelphia and Providence. Through all of this, we can see Hall as a kind of ancestor of Marcus Garvey, where black men were going to stand up for themselves and their community through black pride and self-sufficiency.

All of this makes Hall one of the most important leaders in the early American civil rights movement, a movement which began in 1619 with the first African slaves sent to Virginia and continues effectively unabated today. He also continued to fight for black education, petitioning the state legislature unsuccessfully for funding. He gave speeches in support of the Haitian slave rebellion. He also supported early versions of the Back to Africa movement, as early as 1773, encouraging people to leave American racism and return to their home. Regardless of how this would work in reality, it shows Hall as a progenitor of Garveyism. In 1797, he stated in a speech:

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.

Hall died in 1807.

Prince Hall is buried in Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, Boston, Massachusetts.

Much later, a larger statue was placed next to Hall’s grave.

If you would like this series to visit other early African-American leaders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Benjamin Banneker is in Baltimore and David Walker is in Boston. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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