Prince Hall Masons
Prince Hall Freemasonry is the oldest African American Masonic organization. It aimed to foster racial uplift, mutual aid, and social justice.
Prince Hall was an artisan and abolitionist in Boston. Hall’s birthplace and birth date are not precisely known, but he is believed to have been born in 1735. A successful leather merchant, Hall owned property in Boston and was therefore on the city’s voting roll. He was an engaged citizen, advocating for the Black community as a vocal supporter of the abolition of slavery. Hall died in 1807 and is buried in Boston's historic Copp’s Hill Cemetery.
In 1775, after Hall and other free Blacks tried unsuccessfully to join the city’s all-white Masonic lodge, they were initiated into Lodge 441, which was attached to a British army regiment. When the British retreated from Boston in 1776, Hall’s group received a permit to assemble as African Lodge No. 1. In 1784, the Grand Lodge of England officially chartered the group as African Lodge No. 459. More than 4,500 lodges worldwide are descended from this original organization, now known as the Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Massachusetts.
"We profess to be both men and Masons; and challenge the world to try us, prove us, and disprove us, if they can."
Martin Delaney, 1853
Founded in 1784, Prince Hall Freemasonry is the oldest African American Masonic order. While Prince Hall Masons practiced the secret rituals and moral teachings of Freemasons worldwide, they also shared with other Black fraternal organizations a commitment to racial uplift, mutual aid, and social justice. During slavery and segregation, Masonic lodges provided safe gathering places for the black community. Membership included various community leaders—prominent businessmen, clergymen, and politicians—who also served as role models for Black male identity and empowerment. Membership also provided essential networks for artisans and business owners, and even granted protection. For instance, in 1829, when a protest by white Cincinnati workers against Black employment erupted in violence, Prince Hall Masons organized patrols for the community.
Like other secret societies, Freemasonry is known for its elaborate system of codes, symbols, and rituals. For African American members, Masonic teachings that drew on the Bible reinforced the Christian values preached in Black churches. Other Masonic traditions celebrated the knowledge of ancient civilizations, including Egypt, offering a prideful connection to African cultural heritage.
This early document from African Lodge No. 459, America’s first Black Masonic lodge, certifies the membership of Nero Powers, who was raised to the third degree of masonry, a Master Mason. The document is signed by prominent senior members of the lodge, some of whom were active abolitionists. This Masonic member certificate contains symbolism rich with meaning for Freemasonry that draws from biblical accounts of King Solomon’s Temple.
The Order of the Eastern Star was established in Boston in 1850 as an auxiliary organization for wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters of Freemasons. It became affiliated with the Prince Hall Masons in 1874 through the founding of the Queen Esther Chapter No. 1 in Washington, D.C. The Eastern Star conducts its own philanthropic and community service activities, as well as supporting the work of the male lodges. The society’s emblem, a five-pointed star, symbolizes the group’s aspirations. Each point of the star represents a biblical ideal–Adah, Ruth, Esther, Martha, and Electa–who each embody virtues that members are encouraged to emulate.
Prince Hall Masons were established during the Revolutionary era as a separate, all-Black organization when African Americans were prevented from joining existing Masonic organizations. Prince Hall Masons continually sought racial and social justice for their members and for the wider community, seeking dignified, just, and fair treatment as equal citizens. Today, Black Freemasons continue to expand their original vision and approach.