A recent acquisition by the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library at N-YHS sheds light on the early history of African American freemasonry. The twelve-page, handwritten Proceedings of the Convention of the Grand Colored Lodge, dated 1845, outlines the intentions of the members of three African American masonic lodges to unite under the auspices of one “Grand Lodge.”
“Proceedings of the Convention: Declaration of the Sentiment & Organization of the Independent, Philanthropic Grand Colored Lodge of the Ancient & Honorable Fraternity of Free & Accepted Masons,” September 1845. AHMC-Grand Colored Lodge, New-York Historical Society.
African American freemasonry originated during the American Revolution. On March 6, 1775, fourteen men of color were made masons in Lodge #441 of the Irish Registry attached to the 38th British Foot Infantry at Castle William Island in Boston Harbor, Massachusetts. Prince Hall, a freedman and leather worker, would emerge as the leader of this group, called African Lodge #1. After the war, the group applied to the Grand Lodge of England, the Premier Grand Lodge of the world, for a charter to organize a regular masonic lodge, with all the rights and privileges that went along with it. On September 29, 1784, the Grand Lodge of England issued a charter to African Lodge #459, the first lodge of African Americans Freemasons.
This was the beginning of a tight knit Freemason community based upon common race, history, and experience. Through a growing network of lodges, African American masons promoted fellowship, mutual aid, and social respectability, while standing against slavery and white supremacy. Together, free blacks were much stronger than they could be standing alone, and voluntary associations like those of the Freemasons empowered them and created the potential to exert influence in the community.
“We the undersigned. . . .” AHMC-Grand Colored Lodge, New-York Historical Society.
Over the following decade African American lodges were established in Philadelphia, and in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1812 the African Lodge of Boston issued a charter to create an African American lodge in New York City under the name “African Lodge of New York.” This lodge was later renamed the “Boyer Lodge of New York” in honor of Haitian Revolutionary Jean Pierre Boyer.
The manuscript “pamphlet” in the N-YHS library reflects a period when the African American Freemasons were struggling with issues of expansion, cooperation, consolidation and identity. In 1827, the African Lodge declared its independence from the United Grand Lodge of England. The African Lodge also stated its independence from all of the white Grand Lodges in the United States. The pamphlet is the product of a convention held September 1844 at 105 Elm Street in New York City, attended by masons from New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey, with the purpose of established a cooperative ruling body, or Grand Lodge, called the Independent Philanthropic Grand Colored Lodge of the Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons.
A scene not far from the site of the 1844 convention to establish New York’s Grand Colored Lodge. PR-20, box 18, folder 3, New-York Historical Society.
As the authors of the 1845 pamphlet noted, “the White Masons [of] the Grand Lodge of the United States of North America . . . did for reasons to themselves known pass a resolution not to grant any body or association of colored men a warrant or charter to convene as Masons with their approval in these United States, which violation is in contradiction to the principles taught by Masons; therefore we deem it expedient to organize a Grand Colored Masonic Lodge.”
Though it seems that this convention’s proposed Grand Lodge did not last long during a period of upheaval and reorganization, the tradition of African American Freemasonry has persisted. There are now at least 5,000 lodges that can trace their lineage to the original African Lodge #459 established by Prince Hall. This pamphlet is a valuable piece of the history of African American freemasonry.
The southeast corner of Canal Street and Lafayette (formerly Elm) Street, site of the 1844 convention to establish the Grand Colored Lodge, as it appeared in July 2018. Courtesy of Google Maps.
This post is by Marybeth Kavanagh, Processing Archivist