This is a freelance article I wrote for the November/December issue of California Freemason Magazine, which goes to around 65,000 print subscribers and 114,000 digital subscribers. To see the online article, CLICK HERE!
DECIPHERING THE CONNECTIONS BETWEEN PRINCE HALL MASONRY AND THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD By Tyler Ash
For nearly 200 years, the Underground Railroad has been an elusive, almost mythical aspect of American history, shaping the way we view the cultural and sociopolitical landscapes of the American psyche during the 1800s. A key question continues to elude historians: How did such a large network of people help nearly 100,000 slaves gain freedom while still maintaining a secretive, almost clandestine, status? One fascinating insight may be found by studying some of the leading Prince Hall Masons in Boston during the pre-Civil War period through the post-Reconstruction era. As the sediment of time is gradually lifted from the artifacts of historical truth, researchers are rediscovering fundamental relationships between key conductors of the Underground Railroad and leaders of Prince Hall Freemasonry.
One of those researchers is James R. Morgan III, a past master of Corinthian Lodge No. 18 and the worshipful associate grand historian and archivist of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia. Morgan, who was also recently a keynote speaker at the 16th Annual California Masonic Symposium in June of 2016, is a scholar of African-American history and a member of the Phylaxis Society, the only independent research organization dedicated to the study of African-American Freemasonry.
“One of the formulating hands of Prince Hall Masonry was the trans-Atlantic slave trade itself and the effort of people of African descent to find their freedom and gain liberty,” Morgan says. “It was in the best interest of Prince Hall Masons to aid that struggle.” The relationship between Prince Hall Masonry and the Underground Railroad was symbiotic, says Morgan. A number of the earliest Prince Hall leaders were once enslaved themselves. “Many of these men were considered ‘runaways’ even as they were advancing in Masonry,” Morgan says. “They were aware that their freedom could be revoked at any time.”
FROM SLAVES TO LIBERATORS
Lewis Hayden is one example. Born a slave in Kentucky in 1811, he taught himself to read. In 1844, he and his enslaved family were aided by white abolitionists Calvin Fairbank, a Methodist minister, and Delia Webster, a teacher from Vermont, along the Underground Railroad from Lexington, Kentucky to Ripley, Ohio. Assisted by additional abolitionists, the Hayden family continued north to Canada, where thanks to the Canadian Act Against Slavery of 1793, slavery was outlawed. After attaining their freedom, the Haydens moved to Boston – the center of the abolitionist movement at the time, as well as one of the most active communities of free African-Americans in the country. Boston was also where Prince Hall, the individual, founded African Lodge No. 1 (now No. 459) with 14 other African-American Freemasons in 1782.
Hayden soon became a key figure in Bostonian society and the Underground Railroad. He was extremely passionate about the abolitionist movement, even willing to risk his life in support of the cause. He sheltered more than 100 fugitive slaves at his Boston residence and clothing store, which became known as “the temple of refuge.” John J. Smith, a freeborn African-American from Virginia, played another vital role. After testing his luck in the gold fields of California, Smith moved to Boston between 1849 and 1850, and became a barber. His shop soon served as a hotbed for abolitionist activity and as another key stopping point for runaway slaves. Like Hayden, he was a member of the first Prince Hall lodge, African Lodge No. 1.
As Prince Hall lodges became more established, the education they provided for their members offered a launchpad to higher social status, despite the prejudicial climate of American society in those days. Hayden and his Prince Hall contemporaries harnessed this newfound power to advocate for social justice and lift up brothers who tried to follow in their footsteps. In 1843, George Latimer, a fugitive slave from Virginia, escaped to Boston through the Underground Railroad but was captured upon his arrival and sent to state prison. Prominent Masons, including Hayden and Smith, began a blitzkrieg in the media. A group of abolitionists formed the “Latimer Committee,” issuing several lengthy petitions to the Massachusetts State Assembly. This resulted in the Personal Liberty Act, or the “Latimer Law,” which prevented officials from aiding slave catchers by detaining suspected fugitive slaves in state facilities.
After the ruling, Latimer was viewed as a hero in the abolitionist community and his freedom was purchased for $400. Propelled by immense gratitude, he became a Prince Hall Mason himself and began aiding Underground Railroad efforts. One well-publicized example of Latimer’s contributions is the freeing of a fugitive slave named Shadrach Minkins. In a daring rescue, Hayden, Smith, Latimer, and Edward G. Walker – all Prince Hall Masons within the Boston Vigilance Committee – forcibly retrieved Minkins from courthouse officials after he was arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Through the Underground Railroad, they ensured his safety to Canada.
“The Latimer and Minkins rescues are perfect examples of symbiosis between Prince Hall Masonry and the Underground Railroad,” Morgan says. “These men fulfilled a unique social role.”
LAUNCHING A LEGACY
Boston’s Prince Hall leaders continued to have lasting and widespread effects both in Masonry and in American politics – accomplishments that were, as Morgan notes, remarkable for their time. After founding numerous Prince Hall chapters, Hayden served twice as grand master of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, from 1852 to 1855 and 1857 to 1858. After the Civil War, he published several works on Freemasonry in the African-American community and traveled throughout the Reconstruction-era South, working to create new Prince Hall lodges and to support those that had been newly established.
Smith went on to serve as a state legislator, a recruiter for African-American segregated regiments and cavalries during the Civil War, and as grand master of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Massachusetts in 1859, the year after Hayden was reelected. Today, John J. Smith Lodge No. 14 in Massachusetts bears his name.
Walker exemplifies the value of Prince Hall Masonry to African-American men of his generation. He was one of the first African-American men to pass the Massachusetts bar exam, and later became one of the first African-Americans elected to the Massachusetts State Legislature. In 1896, he was nominated as a U.S. presidential candidate by the Negro Party.
Without Prince Hall Masonry, there would not have been an Underground Railroad as it is understood today.
The connections between Prince Hall Masonry, the Underground Railroad, and the rise in African-American social status continues to thrill contemporary historians. Secrets of this fascinating era are still being unearthed; yet, it is clear that without Prince Hall Masonry, there would not have been an Underground Railroad as it is understood today, and that other political and social achievements would have likely been delayed. “These men put their lives on the line to stand up for what they believed in,” says Morgan. “It was a Masonic thing to do.” And, as contemporary scholars may attest, early Prince Hall Masons’ devotion to championing and living the Masonic ideals of freedom and equality profoundly impacted the course of our nation’s history.
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