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Presented at the Victorian Lodge of Research, Melbourne, on 26 March 2004 and subsequently published in Masonic Perusings, the 2004 transactions of the Victorian Lodge of Research, edited by Graeme Love and Kent Henderson.



The story of Prince Hall and African Lodge has been told many times—often inaccurately and always incompletely. A careful and precise account is readily available to Australian readers in David Gray’s Inside Prince Hall.[1] In summary, Prince Hall was a man held in high regard in Massachusetts, not only within his own Black community but also among influential Whites. He was foundation Master of African Lodge #459, chartered by the Grand Lodge of England (Moderns) in 1784, and continued as Master until his death in 1807.

Because racial segregation isolated them from other lodges in North America, Hall and African Lodge laid the foundation of what has become a separate masonic Order, Prince Hall Freemasonry. Despite several attempts to remedy this shameful division of masons according to racial origin, it persisted for more than 200 years, and it is only in the past 15 years that it has begun to be alleviated.

Prince Hall Freemasonry has suffered not only the slights and attacks of mainstream American masons and the indifference of mainstream Grand Lodges worldwide, but also from quarrels and schisms within their own fraternity. There now exist two main groups of Prince Hall freemasons, each declaring the other to be irregular: in one camp the independent state-based alliance of Grand Lodges of Prince Hall Affiliation (PHA), and in the other a National Grand Lodge with subordinate state Grand Lodges of Prince Hall Origin (PHO). In addition, there are individual Grand Lodges and alliances of Grand Lodges formed by renegades from PHA and PHO, and many other allegedly masonic bodies of more dubious origin.

Most of the accounts of the origin of Prince Hall freemasonry contain particulars of numerous allegations of irregularity and/or defences to these allegations. Many of these are included in the 1994 Kellerman Lecture for South Australia, ‘Our segregated brethren, Prince Hall Freemasons’.[2] Gray[3] omits these allegations and refutations because they became irrelevant after the ruling of the United Grand Lodge of England in December 1994, following a lengthy and careful investigation, that Prince Hall freemasonry was regular in origin and is of exemplary regularity today.[4]

This paper will omit much of the history of Prince Hall freemasonry prior to 1847, concentrating on later events and current issues. In particular, it will re-examine the position of the National Grand Lodge (PHO) and the independent state Grand Lodges (PHA), and discuss options for reconciliation and recognition.

African Lodge

Relying on Gray’s Inside Prince Hall and the authorities cited therein, the history of African Lodge may be summarised as follows:

1776     African Lodge #1 formed as a ‘St John’s Lodge’ (ie without warrant) with Prince Hall as Master.

1779     ‘General Regulations’ (by-laws) recorded.

1784     Warrant issued for African Lodge #459 by the Grand Lodge of England (Moderns) with Prince Hall as Master.

1787    Warrant received; first annual returns made (19 MMs, 4 FCs, 11 EAs).

Hall wrote to Grand Secretary, asking if African Lodge had authority to erect a second lodge of the same name; no reply extant.

1792     African Lodge renumbered #370 but continued to use #459.

1797     Hall authorised two new lodges to work under duplicates of African Lodge’s charter, each using the name African Lodge #459—one in Providence (Rhode Island), the other in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania).

1807     Prince Hall died and was succeeded as WM by Nero Prince (1807–09), followed by George Middleton (1809–11), Peter Lew (1811–17), Sampson Moody (1817–26) and John Hilton (1826–27).

1810     Middleton chartered a second lodge in Pennsylvania.

1811     Lew chartered a third lodge in Pennsylvania.

1812     Lew chartered Boyer Lodge in New York.

1814     Lew chartered a fourth lodge in Pennsylvania. The two Grand Lodges in England (Antients and Moderns) having amalgamated as the United Grand Lodge of England on 27 December 1813, they renumbered their lodges and the result was published in March 1814, omitting all previously listed American lodges—but African Lodge apparently knew nothing of this.

[1815    The four lodges in Pennsylvania formed a Grand Lodge, First Independent African Grand Lodge of North America.]

1824     African Lodge of Boston (Massachusetts) wrote to England, seeking authority to ‘confer the other four Degrees’; letter received but no reply extant.

1826     The lodge in Rhode Island having become defunct, a new lodge was chartered from Boston, Harmony Lodge #1 of Providence; the lodge was required to make annual returns and pay one dollar for each initiation (‘yearly tribute’).

            Boyer Lodge #1 of New York sought a new warrant, which was approved in 1827.

These two last-mentioned events are interrelated. Whatever the legality of the earlier warrants issued from African Lodge, it appears that the lodges so chartered were subordinate to African Lodge of Boston, from the 1797 Philadelphia application (we had rather be under our dear bretheren [sic] from Boston’[5]) to the 1826 charter for Harmony Lodge (annual returns and ‘yearly tribute’). But Boyer’s 1826 application for a second warrant was of a different nature. The committee of African Lodge considered the question of issuing an independent charter to Boyer Lodge. They advised that, in order to do this, African Lodge itself had to be independent.[6] Hence the declaration of June 1827.

African Grand Lodge continued as a one-lodge Grand Lodge until 1847, when, under changed circumstances, African Lodge ceased to exist as a separate entity, and its members were divided between three new lodges. But in 1984 the Grand Master of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Massachusetts revived African Lodge #459 by proclamation, as a commemorative lodge.[7]

While African Grand Lodge of Massachusetts merely survived during this period, its offspring were more energetic. First Independent African Grand Lodge of North America (Pennsylvania) lost two of its four lodges. Those two combined with a lodge of dubious origin to form a rival, Hiram Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania (1837). Both Pennsylvanian Grand Lodges were active beyond state borders, chartering lodges in Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey and Ohio. Of these, only Maryland (1845) had formed its own Grand Lodge prior to 1847.

In 1845 Boyer Grand Lodge of New York was erected; according to tradition, it was formed from Boyer Lodge and three other lodges chartered from Boston. It seems to have been preceded by a rival, Philanthropic Grand Lodge, formed in 1844 by unspecified lodges of unknown origin. Sources are agreed that there was considerable dissention among the lodges in New York.[8]

This set the scene for what was to follow.

The National Grand Lodge

In June 1847 a convention was held in Boston, attended by delegates from Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island,[9] at which it was resolved to organise a National Grand Lodge.[10] As David Gray observes:[11]

Precisely who attended, in what capacity or with what authority, and when, is subject to dispute. There are no extant minutes of the meeting, or meetings, and retrospective records are tainted by subsequent events. The indisputable facts are that in June 1847 a body was formed with the title ‘The Most Worshipful National Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Ancient York Masons (Colored) of North America’, and John T Hilton was its first General Grand Master.

According to Matthew Brock, in his History of the National Grand Lodge (published circa 1980, presumably by either the MW National Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Ancient York Masons, Prince Hall Origin National Compact, U.S.A., or by the author), the title agreed at the convention was ‘National Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Ancient York Masons for the United Sates [sic] of America and Masonic Jurisdiction’ (page 30), or ‘National Grand Lodge of Color of these United States of America and Masonic Jurisdiction’ (page 31). The convention met again in June 1848, this time in New York, to ratify the formation of the National Grand Lodge, and Brock states (page 33) that from that time the body was known as ‘The Most Worshipful National Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Ancient York Masons, National Compact’. There are many minor variations on the title, the National Grand Lodge having been incorporated in many states without attention to uniformity of wording.

Brock, National Grand Master 1963–75, gives a retrospective exposition of the relationship of the National Grand Lodge and its subordinate Grand Lodges:[12]

The National Grand Lodge is a constitutional body, with powers, duties and obligations defined by its organic laws and statutes. Modeled after the United States constitutional federalism, these potencies are largely supervisory and paternal. Meetings were to be held triennially at such place as deemed convenient to the members. Special meetings could be convened to solve special exigencies. The focus of its Legislative power is vested in the body at these sessions, while judicial power is vested in both the body and the Supreme Council.

Thus, the National Grand Master and other officers of the National Grand Lodge have only executive power. Clearly therefore the focus of these functions was the general welfare of the craft, leaving the State Grand Lodges the determination of all matters of purely local and internal concern. Its powers extended to the issuance of charters or warrants of constitution to State Grand Lodges, which tended to help the craft proceed along a line of uniform action. It is noteworthy that the power of the State Grand Lodges was not undermined or reduced, instead it was protected: “The State Grand Lodges shall have full power and authority to grant letters of dispensation and warrants of constitution to subordinate lodges within their several jurisdictions, and to establish as many lodges as they deem most expedient.” Thus, the creation of the National Grand Lodge, as the focus of Colored Masonic sovereignty anticipated the problems inherent in a system of State Grand Lodges as claimants of allegiance, and offered a fraternal solution. . .

In the last analysis the advantages of a National Grand Lodge could only be urged on the basis of reason, and not coercion. A National body would have at its disposal the advantage of the ability and prestige of the most intelligent and ablest of Colored Masons, wherever they could be found. It could reconcile differences by exercising Masonic jurisdiction and the Supreme Council (which was organized in 1897). It could plan and forecast with greater ability, resources, and power than any of its component parts. Economic resources could be concentrated and disposed of more effectively and cumulatively to increase the power of Colored Masons than if done piecemeal.

In theory, this might have worked. The participating Grand Lodges that formed the National Grand Lodge (NGL) accepted charters from the NGL, and lodges formed in other states were chartered as subordinate Grand Lodges under the NGL. It is tempting to draw an analogy with other hierarchical masonic bodies, comparing:

(a)  the original participating Grand Lodges with the 20th-century German Grand Lodges that formed the United Grand Lodges of Germany; and

(b)  the post-1847 subordinate Grand Lodges with Provincial or District Grand Lodges under the English or Scottish systems.

However, there were significant differences (apart from the references, above, to a Supreme Council[13]) and the analogy cannot be taken very far. Also, unfortunately, Brock’s theoretical picture of the National Grand Lodge is not supported by citation of contemporary documents or by events. Gray’s Inside Prince Hall summarises what is known of the growth of the NGL in the period 1847–1877, and the fragmentation of its constituent parts.[14] The result was that many states had an independent (often ex‑NGL) Grand Lodge and a Grand Lodge subordinate to the NGL. These subsequently polarised into independent Grand Lodges of Prince Hall Affiliation (PHA) and NGL-subordinate Grand Lodges of Prince Hall Origin (PHO), with the PHA Grand Lodges and individual PHA members scathing in their attacks on the NGL. Gray provides a list of complaints and an (almost) impartial commentary on them.[15]

Thirty years on

Events reached a climax in 1877–78, but again there is no clear and unbiased contemporary record of facts. By 1877 a majority of subordinate Grand Lodges had rebelled and quit the NGL, which had a triennial session scheduled for that year. Most modern PHA historians claim that the session was held in Wilmington, Delaware, and that the delegates voted to end the NGL. However, the earliest record of this claim appears to be 26 years after the alleged event, made by William H Grimshaw in his Official History of Freemasonry Among the Colored People in North America, Macoy 1903, and subsequent writers cite no earlier authority. Not only has Grimshaw been thoroughly discredited as an historian,[16] but also the very words of the alleged resolutions are highly unlikely to have been made by delegates of the NGL:[17]

Resolved, That the National or Compact Grand Lodge is, and the same is hereby declared to be an irregular and unheard of body in Masonry, and it is hereby declared forever void.

The National Grand Lodge rejects this claim, stating that the 10th triennial session was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. According to Brock,[18] this is supported by the research of mainstream masonic historian Edward Cusick in correspondence with Brock in 1957, who quoted the whole of a newspaper report from the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, 18 May 1877, page 4, column 3. Confirmation of the contents of Cusick’s letter and of the newspaper report have been sought by the present writer. The director of the Chancellor Robert R Livingston Library (New York) has searched the extensive Edward R Cusick Collection without avail; a copy of the newspaper has not yet been located in Pennsylvania libraries, but the Carnegie Public Library in Pittsburgh has yet to be explored. PHA champion Joseph A Walkes Jr is ambiguous on the issue, quoting at length from  an earlier PHA historian, Harry A Williamson, as being ‘of interest’, finding confirmation in the Proceedings of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Ohio, 1878 (pp 27 & 66) that the 10th triennial was held at Pittsburgh in 1877,[19] but later comments:[20]

. . . when the National Grand Lodge, (or such of it as was left) was scheduled to meet in Wilmington, Del., in 1877, there was nothing for the organization to do but dissolve, because, no Grand Lodges were represented to call a meeting.

In view of these facts, the claim that any group of gentlemen insist the National Grand Lodge did not dissolve, is positively fraudulent.

However, one PHA historian, Ralph L McNeal, unreservedly accepts that Cusick’s claim is correct, finding confirmation that the tenth triennial was held at Pittsburgh, and not at Wilmington, in comments in the annual Proceedings of several PHA Grand Lodges.[21] The newspaper report is also cited with approval by another mainstream historian, John Sherman.[22] It should be noted that the newspaper report, as quoted, records the absence owing to ill-health of National Grand Master Richard H Gleaves and the election of Dr George W Levere, of Tennessee, as NGM. Confirmation that there was a Grand Lodge in Tennessee at that time, which was still loyal to the National Grand Lodge, may be deduced from Walkes.[23] There are indications that a motion to dissolve the NGL was entertained at the Pittsburgh session, but of the nine Grand Lodges represented, only New York supported the motion.[24]

A meeting was called at Wilmington the following year ‘of all the colored grand lodges in the United States and Canada’. This emanated from an NGL resolution at the 10th triennial and was ‘for the express purpose of settling whatever differences that may exist among the craft, and to form a Union satisfactory to all, if possible’.[25] The meeting was attended by representatives of some of the independent (state) Grand Lodges, and the outcome was a recommendation for a ‘Grand Lodge Union of the United States of North America’, comprised of elected representatives of each Grand Lodge, with specific and limited powers, to meet every four years under a Presiding Officer of restricted tenure and powers, commencing in 1880, subject to ratification by two-thirds of all ‘colored’ Grand Lodges of North America on or before 31 December 1879. It was recommended that, upon such ratification, the pre-existing NGL should be dissolved.[26] Ratification, however, was not forthcoming. This, of course, did not affect the validity of any of the participants of the meeting at Wilmington in 1878, merely that of the proposed new merger. The sequel occurred some years later, in 1888, when NGM Levere’s successor, Captain W D Matthews, gave the ‘rebellious’ Grand Lodges an ultimatum,[27] the ‘Great Manifesto’, in effect: Return to the fold within two months, or I will erect new Grand Lodges in your stead. They didn’t, and he did.

The independent (state, or State’s Rights) Grand Lodges thrived, spreading through most of the United States, and beyond, eventually forming the association known as Grand Lodges of Prince Hall Affiliation. The National Grand Lodge survives, in fewer states and lesser numbers, and in isolation from mainstream and PHA masonry. It has long been subject to attack from proponents of PHA, in pamphlets and books, in the courts, and now on the Internet.

Hard-liners declare the NGL to have been masonically unlawful from the outset—firstly demonstrating confusion over the modern requirement directed against control by a Supreme Council, that a Grand Lodge should be independent and not subject to outside control, and secondly ignoring the fact that they may be thereby pronouncing their own origins irregular. Others consider the creation of the NGL, while not unlawful, to be an error of judgment—in hindsight, the ‘Great Mistake’. Almost without exception, PHA researchers are convinced that the NGL was dissolved in 1877, and the shell was taken over or resurrected unlawfully in 1878; they appear to accept Grimshaw’s claim and ignore or dismiss Cusick’s research, and thus declare the present body to be irregular from that date.[28] The NGL claims an unbroken succession from 1847 to the present date and persuasive evidence to the contrary has yet to be produced. Its origins would appear to be no more irregular than those of the pre-NGL Grand Lodges which formed it. When the United Grand Lodge of England recognised the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Massachusetts in December 1994, it intimated that the formation of this Grand Lodge, at the time it was formed, could be seen as merely eccentric and of acceptable regularity. The present Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Massachusetts traces its lineage through the National Grand Lodge (1847–1873), which suggests that England considered the origin of the NGL also to be ‘merely eccentric’. England, of course, has not had occasion to pronounce on the continued regularity of the NGL beyond 1877.

The problem lies in the dearth of historical research and the lack of reliable, unbiased contemporary records. This is true of both parties, PHA and PHO, from the beginning right up to the end of the 20th century. Those few who have engaged in research have been almost entirely PHA, which, given the rivalry, has seldom resulted in impartiality. Just as, until very recently, the bulk of US mainstream researchers painted a picture of PHA irregularity, so too have PHA researchers given a bad press to the NGL, and the NGL has produced neither the scholars nor the verifiable documentation to refute it.

There is a vital need for scholarly and impartial research in both branches of Prince Hall masonry, to fill the many gaps in the historical development of the fraternity in most states and on a national basis. A substantial part of this burden could be assumed by research lodges, if they existed, but they have been rare—and short-lived—in PHA, receiving little encouragement or official support, and they are non-existent in PHO. For the past 30 years the prime source of PHA history has been the Phylaxis magazine, and the work of some of its leading members, particularly the books of its founder, Joseph Walkes. Now, with the advent of the new millennium, younger researchers are active in the field of PHA history and ready to publish their work. David Gray, with the encouragement of the ANZMRC, was first; others include Ralph McNeal (a meticulous researcher), Alton Roundtree (an experienced writer and editor), and Ezekiel M Bey of New York. The results are eagerly awaited.

The only readily available historical work from the National Grand Lodge is Matthew Brock’s History of the National Grand Lodge (c. 1980), available from the National Grand Lodge at US$15.00. The author completed secondary education in Georgia, and then received gratuitous private tuition in Ohio. He was employed on the Pennsylvania Railroad for 43 years. He served as National Grand Master from 1963 to 1975, and his forte appears to have been finance, placing first his Grand Lodge (Eureka Grand Lodge of Ohio) and then the NGL on a sound financial footing. From his correspondence with Edward Cusick in the 1950s, it is apparent that Brock had long been interested in the history of his fraternity, and after his term as NGM he was appointed NGL Historian.

The book cannot be judged by its cover, which is of good quality and attractive appearance. Inside, it is seriously flawed as a reference work: it lacks an index; it has no bibliography or list of references, no footnotes or endnotes, and very few indications of sources; clearly it did not receive the attention of a copy-editor or even of a professional proof-reader (a breed which had not yet disappeared in 1980)—probably not even galley-proofing by the author, since large chunks of material are repeated in close proximity to each other. But it cannot be dismissed out of hand. It is the only book available to present the other side of the PHA/PHO story. Some of it is demonstrably wrong (notably the history of Smooth Ashlar Grand Lodge in Georgia), but some can be subject to verification (for example the disputed location and outcome of the tenth triennial session of the National Grand Lodge in 1877). Even with agreed facts, it is enlightening to see the different perspective of PHA and PHO.

There is a clear need for a better work on the NGL history, and one is in progress. The author is Cedric Lewis, Grand Master of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Mississippi (PHO), the present historian and webmaster of the NGL.[29]

With such a dearth of accessible published material, the Internet is virtually the only source for further investigation, from outside the United States, of the history of the NGL since 1878 and the present situation. The main problem with material from the Internet is verification, and this should be kept in mind in relation to the next section of this paper.

   [1]   Gray, David: Inside Prince Hall, ANZMRC 2003, ISBN 0-9578256-1-7; North American edn, Anchor Communications 2004,
ISBN 0-935633-32-4.

   [2]   AMRC Proceedings 1994, pp 39–73; Masonic Research in South Australia, vol 1 pp 109–150.

   [3]   op cit.

   [4]   UGLE Quarterly Communication, 10 December 1994.

   [5]   Upton, William H: ‘Prince Hall’s Letter Book’ in (1900) Ars Quatuor Coronatorum 13:56 @ 63.

   [6]   Gray, p 32 (Anchor edn p 30).

   [7]   See Internet websites <http://www.africanlodge459.org> and <http://www.princehall.org/lodge459.html>.

   [8]   More information about the rival Grand Lodges in New York in the mid-1800s, including St Philip’s and Osiris Electric Grand Lodges, may soon be available in a book in preparation by PHA researcher Ezekiel M Bey.

   [9]   Walkes, J A Jr: A Prince Hall Masonic Quiz Book, 2 edn, Macoy 1989, pp 62–3, 76, citing the 6th Triennial Proceedings of the National Grand Lodge, 18 years after the event.

[10]   Walkes, op cit, pp 60–62, citing an 1849 report from an eyewitness, Alexander Elston.

[11]   Inside Prince Hall, p 66 (Anchor edn p 62).

[12]   Brock, M: History of the National Grand Lodge, (no details of publisher, location or date, but evidently c.1980), p 33.

[13]   Brock’s pronouncements about the Supreme Council (formed in 1897 under controversial circumstances) are obscure; there appears to be no cogent evidence of control of the NGL or its affiliate Grand Lodges by the Supreme Council, although—as is common in US Craft jurisdictions—much is made of holding high rank in the Scottish Rite. He may be referring to the ‘Council of Nine’, a group of high-ranking Scottish Rite Masons whom the NGM may consult if he wishes.

[14]   Inside Prince Hall, pp 68–73 (Anchor edn pp 63–68).

[15]   op cit, pp 73–76 (Anchor edn pp 68–70).

[16]   see comments of Terry Haunch on Draffen, G: ‘Prince Hall Freemasonry’ in (1976) Ars Quatuor Coronatorum 87:70 @ 84-87.

[17]   quoted in Parham, W H: An Official History of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons for the State of Ohio, PHGL of Ohio 1906, p 102.

[18]   Brock, op cit, pp 70–75.

[19]   Walkes, op cit, pp 69–70, 76.

[20]   ibid, p 73.

[21]   personal email correspondence.

[22]   Sherman, J M: ‘The negro “National” or “Compact” Grand Lodge’ in (1979) AQC 92:148 @ 157.

[23]   Walkes, op cit, p 73.

[24]   Email correspondence with a PHO mason, citing the 1877 Proceedings of the PHO Grand Lodge in Pennsylvania.

[25]   Brock, quoting Cusick, op cit, p 78.

[26]   Transcript of minutes supplied by Joe Snow, PHA Georgia.

[27]   Brock, op cit, pp83–84.

[28]   Among the few PHA researchers active on the Internet who concede that the 10th triennial was held in Pittsburgh, where George Levere was elected NGM, and reject Grimshaw’s claim it was held in Wilmington and the NGL dissolved by resolution of the delegates, Ralph McNeal nevertheless considers the NGL to have been irregular from 1847 to 1878—and ‘bogus’ thereafter—but Alton Roundtree, whose long-awaited book is now scheduled for publication in October 2004, considers it to have been regular throughout.

[29]        <http://www.mwnationalgrandlodge.org>.