By Larry S. Gibson
The Prince Hall Masons are American’s oldest civil rights organization.
The American colonies declared independence from England in 1776. Prince Hall had become a Mason a year earlier, when in 1775, he and 14 other free black men were initiated into the Craft by British FreeMasons stationed in Boston Harbor.
Prince Hall and his brothers immediately began their advocacy for the rights for African Americans.
For example, in 1777, one year after the Declaration of Independence, Prince Hall and other leaders began to formally petition the Massachusetts House of Representative to abolish slavery in that state and to open schools for black youngsters.
Prince Hall, founder of the Prince Hall Masons. (Image courtesy Larry S. Gibson)
After the conflict between the new nation and England ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1783, and the British troops had left our shores, Prince Hall successfully petitioned the Grand Lodge in England for a full Masonic charter, with the authority to establish new chapter in America.
Prince Hall and his brothers began to dramatically expand their presence. They chartered Prince Hall Masonic lodges in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. Then, African Friendship Lodge #6 was established here in Baltimore on February 2, 1825, becoming the first Prince Hall lodge below the Mason Dixon line.
As Prince Hall Masons spread, so did their opposition to slavery. Many Masonic leaders became prominent abolitionists; and several lodges provided became important stations along the Underground Railroad
When the Civil War promised an end to slavery, Boston Grand Master Lewis Hayden and other Masons provided leadership in recruiting blacks to serve in the U.S Colored Troops.
Masons were very prominent among the 10,000 black Marylanders who fought for the Union. Major Martin Dulany, a Prince Hall Mason, became the highest-ranking black officer in the Union Army.
After the Civil War, many black soldiers purchased their guns from the U.S. Army and brought their weapons home. They organized black militia groups that protected communities from violence at the hands of the former supporters of slavery.
Masons led many of these units. In Baltimore, they had names such as the Oakland Invincible Guards, the Hugh Lennox Bond Militia, and the Lincoln Zouaves, who had their armory at the corner of Howard and Franklin streets.
When the 15th Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing blacks the right to vote, a massive celebratory parade was held here in Baltimore on May 19, 1870. This was the largest demonstration that black people had ever conducted in this country.
The parade took the 10,000 marchers and floats all over Baltimore and within four blocks of this building. Many organizations participated. The lead organizer of that march was Prince Hall Grand Master Isaac Myers.
The lithograph images of that parade show 15 men on horseback leading the parade, dressed in black suits with top hats. Those were Prince Hall Knights Templar from Baltimore and Philadelphia.
As we moved into the 20th century, black Masons continued to provide our people leadership and direction, with men like W.E. B. Dubois, Booker T. Washington, and Paul Robeson.
When we began to use the courts to secure our civil rights, the most effective legal advocate was a Baltimore Mason, Thurgood Marshall, who became the most important American lawyer of the Twentieth Century.
But Thurgood Marshall did not have to fight the legal battles alone. In almost every state in the South, he was joined by a local attorney, who in most cases was also a Mason.
For example, the Thurgood Marshall of South Carolina was Harold Bouleware. In Alabama, it was Arthur D. Shores of Birmingham. In Tennessee, it was Z. Alexander Looby of Nashville. All of them were Masons. The great civil rights lawyer of Oklahoma was Grand Master Amos T. Hall, who for 17 years was the President of the Conference of Grand Masters.
Masonic leadership in civil rights has not been limited to lawyers. We know the names – Medgar Evers, Benjamin Hooks, A. Phillip Randolph, and currently Congressman John Lewis , and our beloved late Congressman Elijah Cummings.
In addition to providing lawyers, leaders, and troops, Masonic lodges also supplied important material and logistical support to civil rights organizations and efforts. Many NAACP branches, Urban League offices, and other civil rights organizations were housed in Masonic Temples. When it was necessary to get the word out, often the Masons had the only functioning copying machine. Some will remember the mimeograph and ditto machines.
And yes, the Masons supplied money. Lots of it. I have, for the past two years, been assembling the record of the extraordinary amount of money the Prince Hall Masons provided to civil rights organizations, particularly the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund. So far, I am up to more than $400,000 in just the 1950s. That would be more than three million in present day dollars.
This money came from local lodges, Grand Lodges, the Conference of Grand Masters, and from Prince Hall affiliated groups, including the Eastern Star and Shriners.
Thurgood Marshall frequently said that his work on landmark cases, such as Brown v Board of Education, would have been far less effective were it not for the support of the Masons.
In my next book, I plan to document these special contributions of America’s Oldest Civil Rights Organization.
Larry S. Gibson is a law professor and a Sovereign Grand Inspector General 33° of the Prince Hall Masons