African American Freemasonry & Fraternalism


This collections brings together a number of documents related to historically black fraternal organizations, including many related to Prince Hall Freemasonry.

A leading citizen in Boston’s eighteenth-century black community, Prince Hall (1738-1807) was an abolitionist who petitioned the Massachusetts’ legislature to end slavery, and a Methodist who campaigned for schools to educate the African-American children of Boston. Hall was a leather dresser by trade who, in 1777, supplied drumheads to the Regiment of Artillery. Drawn to Freemasonry’s values and opportunities, Hall, a former slave, tried to join Boston’s Masonic lodges in the early 1770s, but was denied membership.

African-American men’s participation in Freemasonry is generally traced back to the March 6, 1775 initiation of Prince Hall and fourteen other black men in Lodge No. 441, a British military lodge attached to the 38th Regiment of Foot. A year later, the military lodge that had initiated Hall was leaving Boston, but before they left, the lodge granted Prince Hall and his brethren authority to meet as a lodge, bury their dead, and march in processions for St. John’s Day. However, they were not given authority to confer degrees or perform any other “work.” With this authority granted to them, Prince Hall and his brethren organized as African Lodge No. 1 on July 3, 1775, with Hall as Master.

In order to become a fully functioning lodge that could confer degrees, African Lodge No. 1 needed to be chartered. Unable to obtain a charter from a Grand Lodge in the United States, they appealed to the Grand Lodge of England and were granted a charter on September 29, 1784 as African Lodge No. 459. It wasn’t until later that those lodges and Grand Lodges that descended from African Lodge No. 459 chose to give their fraternity Hall’s name to distinguish it from the predominantly white “mainstream” lodges that generally excluded blacks throughout the 19th and part of the 20th century.

Pictured above: detail from Prince Hall Master Mason certificate issued by Hermon Lodge, No. 21, to Theodore Gleghorn, 1921. A2019/124/001.

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Collection Items

Amateur minstrels show handbill, 1907 February 25
Amateur minstrels show handbill. Dated February 25, 1907. This small handbill publicizes an amateur minstrels show held for the "benefit of the Colored Odd Fellows." Wilbur Miles, a world-renowned entertainer of mixed race descent, headlined the…

Letter from Sovereign Grand Commander Peter W. Ray to the Supreme Council, 1884 September
Letter from Sovereign Grand Commander Peter W. Ray to the Supreme Council. Dated September 1884. In this letter from Sovereign Grand Commander Peter W. Ray to the Supreme Council, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, Ray provides a history of his Supreme…

Real photo postcard of Pollie Thomas, between 1904 and 1918
Real photo postcard of Pollie Thomas. Dated between 1904 and 1918. This real photo postcard print or RPPC depicts Pollie Thomas of Staunton, Virginia, the Worthy Recorder of the Rose of Sharon Household of Ruth, No. 79. Printed on Azo paper.…
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