I cannot and do not speak on behalf of my Prince Hall Brethren, and I welcome their responses and corrections. Prince Hall Masonry, being an African-American tradition of Freemasonry, is for many an unknown, a curiosity. Some of us travel the world and yet have not explored quarries of this "foreign country" in our own backyards, Lodges who sometimes even share a building with our own.
New York's Prince Hall ritual is much closer to ours than that of Pennsylvania or Ontario. In fact, they preserved many things we took out over the years. Prince Hall Masons have a reputation for diligent and precise work, and some suggest this is because they have had to prove themselves to be regular Masons, under fire for two centuries by accusations they were not.
Until recently, most of Masonry – in the US at least – considered them to be clandestine. Rationalizations of illegitimacy stem from questions of being "freeborn" and territoriality. Arguing over what "free born" meant in a time where slavery existed, and a person's origins could be questioned is ... questionable. This Landmark has been interpreted in different ways in different times and places – our Prince Hall counterparts in New York simply use the term "Free Man" – but I would suggest it boils down to the one question of a person having the legal right to enter an agreement of their own free will and accord, with no possible issues of previous "legal" obligations that may interfere, such as indentured servitude, or laws regarding the children of enslaved people.
As for territoriality, it is a courtesy to not establish Lodges in places where Lodges under another jurisdiction exist. This probably served the operative guilds well, but today, the aim is harmony or at least lack of poaching candidates and Brothers. That is why most states, provinces, and smaller counties each have a single Grand Lodge that we in New York recognize. And yet, in earlier times, Lodges in the American Colonies or on the European continent could have been chartered from England or Scotland or Ireland, and there were no boundaries. Recently, we chose to recognize more than one Grand Lodge of the same province of a Latin American country. Lebanon's Lodges, some of which are under our jurisdiction, now practice alongside Lodges that formed their own sovereignty as The Grand Lodge of Free & Accepted Masons of Lebanon. But what of Prince Hall? How and where can they exist among jurisdictions whose territories cover every land from sea to shining sea?
To answer that, we must go back to 1784. Two years before that, a man named Prince Hall and fourteen other freemen were initiated by a regimental Lodge of the Grand Lodge of Ireland, having been rejected by the Colonial Provincial Lodges. Now they wished to form their own Lodge and did so as African Lodge, the first African-American Lodge in America, but not with a Charter from an American jurisdiction. After the Revolution, English Lodges moved to join the Lodges of various states, regimental Lodges returning to England, and one Provincial Grandmaster taking his Charter with him to Canada. These dark-skinned brothers were tolerated to an extent, but these new jurisdictions would not give them a Charter. Instead, they petitioned and received one from the Premier Grand Lodge of England.
In 1808, the year after Prince Hall died, the African Grand Lodge was formed, later named in his honor. The means of constituting their Grand Lodge has been criticized, but the short of it is that by various standards judging them illegitimate, many other Grand Lodges in America would also be such. I won't bore you with the details, but this is laid out thoroughly in Joseph Walkes, Jr.'s "Black Square and Compass: 200 Years of Prince Hall Freemasonry".
Prince Hall Freemasonry is arguably America’s first Black institution. Prince Hall himself was an abolitionist. He challenged the government to stand by the principles it claimed, “a natural and unalienable right to that freedom, which the great parent of the Universe hath bestowed equally on all Mankind.” He petitioned the legislature of Massachusetts that "means be provided for the education of colored people" on the argument that they had faithfully paid taxes and were willing to do so, yet their children's lack of schooling had been an "oversight." With Prince Hall’s assistance, Belinda Royall became the first and only former enslaved person to receive monetary reparations for years of uncompensated labor. This was not an apolitical Mason, and he not any less related to the history of the Craft and our Country than our more familiar Brother, George Washington.
From here, Prince Hall Lodges grew and established new jurisdictions across the nation to accommodate those worthy and well qualified who were nonetheless rejected by other Lodges on the basis of the color of their skin. It became one of few pillars in African-American communities, as there were few if any organizations they could join. Even in higher learning, People of Color were barred from Greek Fraternities. This is also why the Nation of Islam grew into strength and not coincidentally mirrors some of the rituals and culture of Scottish Rite Freemasonry.
So we end up with two branches of Masonry in America, sharing the same ritual, the same language, the same Landmarks, the same professed values and ideals, and yet did not acknowledge each other. Albert Pike said in 1875, "I took my obligations to white men, not to Negroes. When I have to accept Negroes as brothers or leave Masonry, I shall leave it", but also said, "Prince Hall Lodge was as regular a Lodge as any Lodge created by competent authority. It had a perfect right to establish other Lodges and make itself a Mother Lodge." In his later years, it appears he recanted his prejudices, having become friends with the head of the Prince Hall Scottish Rite, which adopted his ritual.
If not apparent already, Prince Hall Freemasonry encompasses all the common Masonic Bodies, including Eastern Star, the Shrine, and the York Rite, or "Red House" as it is called, in contrast to the "Blue House" of what we call Blue Lodge. Their Shriners celebrate a unique holiday called Jubilee Day. It celebrates a Supreme Court decision made on June 3, 1929, deciding their lawful right – after a 15-year court battle – to use the name, designation, letters, emblems, and regalia as Nobles of the Mystic Shrine.
It is clear that our separate-ness is due to social and not Masonic differences. Masonic history in America is a reflection of our national journey, including its imperfections. One author describes Freemasonry as the most segregated institution in America, even more than Christian churches. Today, half of all Prince Hall Masons in America live in the seven states they are not recognized by “our” Grand Lodges. One Grand Master recently explained, "You have black Baptist churches, and you have white Baptist churches. But they both recognize each other as being Baptist. We are talking about accepting the fact that "you practice Masonry and I practice Masonry." Some Masons have formed Lodges outside their Grand Lodge, such as in Alabama, in response to not voting for recognition.
Many Prince Hall jurisdictions have no interest unless it's clearly mutual, meaning we have to take the first step. We could argue over each other's stubbornness but forget that we inherited a legacy that created the conditions for the necessity of their forming alternative Lodges.
Mainstream ... sometimes those of us not Prince Hall call ourselves the "regular Lodges," as if they are somehow not regular. But even 'mainstream' reflects an unconscious bias. Instead of equal ownership in our tradition, they are seen as a branch on "our" tree, just as White is a sort of default identity in "our" society. They are our "other" Brothers in a way we don't think of Masons from other states or countries. This is not out of unkindness but unexamined socialization and unfamiliarity. We must guard against talking about Prince Hall Masonry as a curiosity or visiting them as if we are tourists. Nothing Masonic, or Human for that matter, should be alien to us.
As New York Masons, we can now visit any Lodge under the MWPHGLNY and in many other, though not all, Prince Hall jurisdictions across America. There are other Prince Hall jurisdictions, such as Prince Hall International, that we do not currently recognize. And there are many Lodges under the name Prince Hall that are considered clandestine by everyone but themselves.
The main Prince Hall jurisdictions have already been fully recognized by England and Scotland. In America, attempts at recognition caused the Grand Lodges of other states to revoke recognition of those "mainstream" Grand Lodges who dared it. The first longstanding recognition was established in 1989 between Connecticut's Grand Lodges; relatively progressive New York, not until 2003.
In New York, there were false starts and perceived slights, with "Black and White Dinners" in the 1980s, referring to formal attire. The efforts appear to have been abandoned thereafter. But thanks to two Brothers who worked together out in the world and discovered they were each Masons, but unable to attend each other's Lodges, dialogue turned into a negotiation, and finally, a Compact was established. Most Worshipful Brother Carl J. Smith, a local Mason, signed on our jurisdiction’s behalf.
The first mutual Lodge gathering was here in Buffalo, between Ionic Lodge No.88 and Master Builder Lodge No.911, an antecedent of Ken-Ton Lodge No.1186, or which I am a recent Past Master. I know the Brothers who started this conversation personally, and I've invited them to the debut of this presentation. I will let them relate that story themselves.
The biggest setback before this was our jurisdiction's enthusiasm to form a "unity committee," meaning a merging of Grand Lodges. From the Prince Hall perspective, this was presumptuous, if not offensive. To truly understand this, we must admit that African-Americans have always been caught between the forces of segregation or assimilation. As similar as we are, to integrate risks losing identity, and perhaps more importantly, their important continuing role in the African-American community.
Our Lodges, on the whole, have become regional. This is probably due to deurbanization and the fact that most people don't work in the same place they live and may not even go to worship in their own neighborhood. This is far less true of African-American communities, being more isolated and localized. Their Lodge mergers are across much smaller distances. In Buffalo and Erie County, all Prince Hall Lodges are within the city limits, while all of our Lodges now reside in the suburbs.
But when a prospective Brother inquires about Freemasonry, do I recommend one jurisdiction over another? We shouldn't be competing, after all, but we should also not assume their desires from their color. My suggestion, and practice, is to educate them and let them decide. If they are Black and living in the suburbs, for example, they may or may not want to join a nearby Lodge of mostly old White men. I will not judge them either way for that, any more than someone would prefer to join a Lodge with a lot of people with shared interests or in his profession. But if they want a Lodge that is connected to the African-American community, Prince Hall clearly fulfills that desire. And there's no reason we cannot still be there for a Brother's degrees if they choose another jurisdiction.
Famous Prince Hall Masons include Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States; Booker T. Washington; Sugar Ray Robinson; Congressman John Lewis, who was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1963 to 1966, yet suffered many arrests and beatings as a protester. There are many more that you can look up yourself, but there are two points to be made here.
First, you will not find Presidents, astronauts, or famous generals, in such stations for the most part barred People of Color until my own lifetime. Secondly, you will find every last one of these upright men and Masons absent from many of the lists of famous Masons. Recognition and inclusion in the pride and promotion of our Craft could go a long way to fix this 'oversight.'
So, was our mission accomplished in 2003? Some of our Lodges proudly work together now and then, including a food drive during the pandemic. Two other Brothers and I were the first from our jurisdiction to march with our Prince Hall Brethren in Buffalo's Juneteenth Parade, possibly a first anywhere. Prince Hall Brothers assisted in the Middle Chamber lecture at a degree in Olean, New York. But there is so much more that could be done.
The education available between degrees in Prince Hall Lodges puts us to shame, and the knowledge is similar enough to take advantage of such classes for our own new Brothers if we are so welcomed. The participation of Prince Hall Brothers in our degree work would send a clear message to new Brothers that we mean what we say about tolerance and the universality of the Fatherhood of God.
Involvement in the community is something else we can learn from. In the suburbs, we tend to do charity at a distance, whereas there are opportunities to deal directly with those in need in urban communities. It's the difference between raising money for donations and things like having a shower facility for the homeless, as was established by St. John's Lodge No.16, the Prince Hall Mother Lodge of Buffalo. Working together can alleviate some of our common, circumstantial ignorance toward Color and poverty.
Of course, there's the hurdle that many people not of Color feel uneasy about going to certain neighborhoods. Taken for granted otherwise, we are not accustomed to being a minority at a venue or the only person who looks like us. That in itself can be challenging for some, but what better place to experience that than surrounded by Brothers?
I say our greatest challenge is our greatest opportunity. If we can have the conversations we need to within the Craft and learn to truly best work, and best agree, the profane world will have something to learn from us — something it desperately needs, whether we are willing to see it or not.
To my Prince Hall Brothers, I offer this. My inquiry into Freemasonry included the question of racial exclusion in the Craft. If I had asked this hard question before 2003, I would not have become a Mason. I wish to believe most others did not know to ask that question rather than not caring or perhaps resigning themselves to things just being the way they were. Like so many other things in our society, we don't see race as being part of Masonry, whereas you did not have a choice, and that in no small way defines you. I don't think you owe me or anyone an apology for that.
Again, I do not speak for my Lodge or my Grand Lodge, but for myself ... When I am welcomed into your quarries, I stand humbly before you, like a brother of Joseph in Egypt, willing to make amends I am able, and you see just. I accept the debt of the sin of two centuries of failure to recognize and embrace my Brothers. I will mourn but not judge you if my Love is not returned.
But many of you have returned that Love, and I hope we improve upon our common Work, together, fully and meaningfully, for the sake of bettering ourselves and the World.
Bro. Ken JP Stuczynski is a member of West Seneca Lodge No.1111 and recently served as Master of Ken-Ton Lodge No.1186. As webmaster for
NYMasons.Org he is on the Communications and Technology Committees for the Grand Lodge of the State of New York. He is also a Royal Arch Mason and 32nd Degree Scottish Rite Mason, serving his second term as Sovereign Prince of Palmoni Council in the Valley of Buffalo, NMJ. He also coordinates a Downtown Square Club monthly lunch in Buffalo, NY. He and his wife served as Patron and Matron of Pond Chapter No.853 Order of the Eastern Star and considered himself a “Masonic Feminist.”