Black Soldiers Played an Undeniable but Largely Unheralded Role in Founding the United States
Veterans like Prince Hall fought for independence and then abolition in the earliest days of the nation
Just after dawn on Christmas Day 2020, Clarence Snead Jr., received a phone call with harrowing news: The Prince Hall Masonic Lodge in Providence, Rhode Island, was ablaze. Snead, whose nickname is “Grand” (for “Most Worshipful Grand Master”), rushed the half-hour drive to the lodge on Eddy Street and found the building engulfed in flames.
The lodge had a remarkable history that a passerby might not suspect from the two-story wooden structure; a destructive blaze would strike a terrible blow for historic preservation. It housed one of the earliest organizations established by African Americans, stretching back to the era of Prince Hall, a black Bostonian and Revolutionary War veteran. Hall started the first lodge for black Freemasons in his home city in the 1770s with a charter obtained from British Freemasons, because Massachusetts’ white Masonic brethren rejected his application. The arc of Hall’s life and legacy point to the underappreciated role played by African Americans in the Revolution, an indication that the path to black civil rights is as old as the nation itself.
As founder of America’s first fraternal organization for African Americans, Hall has the stature of a founding father. Over time the group came to be called Prince Hall Freemasons; Prince Hall Masonic lodges spread across the country in the 1800s and continue today.
The lodge in Providence where Snead serves as Grand Master was one of the first that Hall organized outside of Boston. “We’re the second lodge that Prince Hall came down and established,” Snead said recently by phone. After the fire, he said, the building was “totaled,” its charred exterior matched by a gutted inside. The lodge was one of just three founded by Hall during his lifetime.
Recognition of Hall by historians and the general public outside of the Masonic community has been scarce. That started to change when the Cambridge, Massachusetts politician E. Denise Simmons proposed a public monument to Hall, who is buried just across the Charles River in Boston’s Copp’s Hill burying ground. The memorial was unveiled in 2010 on the Cambridge Common, where legend holds that George Washington took command of the Continental Army and may have encountered Hall. Six black stone obelisks stand in a near circle, with inscriptions about Hall’s life including his service in the Revolution.
“When you study Prince Hall, you learn he became a Mason because he saw this philosophy of Masonry as a way to advance his cause, to free his brethren and sisters,” says Simmons, who sees a throughline between Hall and Martin Luther King, who she says “stands squarely on the shoulders of Prince Hall.” Her grandfather, a guidepost of her early life, was a Prince Hall Mason in Tuskegee, Alabama.
Red Mitchell, a lifetime Prince Hall Mason, supported Simmons on the committee for the memorial. He says the principles of Prince Hall Freemasonry boil down to “the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of all man.”
For him, the memorial also speaks to the unsung black participation in the Revolutionary War. “A lot of people think this monument is just about Prince Hall, but it represents more, the start of emancipation, and the first blacks to truly call themselves African-Americans,’’ Mitchell told the Boston Globe before the memorial was unveiled. “We’re talking about those patriots of African descent who helped lay the foundation of our nation during the Revolutionary period.’’
The details of Hall’s life are patchy for the reason that bedevils African American history generally: a dearth of research documenting black lives. His birthplace may or may not have been Barbados. (In The Atlantic, scholar Danielle Hall suggests he was born in Boston.) He learned the leatherworking trade from his enslaver, William Hall, possibly enjoying some freedom before being formally emancipated by 1770. He founded the Masonic lodge by 1775, fought for the Continental Army, petitioned and gave speeches for ending slavery, and started a school in his home for children of color, all before his death in 1807
In recent years a few historians have uncovered more about the significance of black fraternal organizations. Cécile Révauger, emeritus professor of history at Bordeaux University in France, published Black Freemasonry: From Prince Hall to the Giants of Jazz in 2016. (The subtitle refers to W.C. Handy, Duke Ellington and Count Basie were Prince Hall Masons, as were movement leaders W.E.B. Du Bois and Thurgood Marshall.) Révauger notes in her book that black Freemasonry, which has been too little studied, can yield insights “both for the history of Freemasonry and for that of black Americans.” She writes, “Freemasonry was the first institution created by blacks in a large number of states… even before black churches.”
Mitchell, 93, has reviewed much of the research about Hall and the Revolutionary War experience of African Americans, especially in New England. In a recent phone call, he explained that state-by-state review of records from the war showed that white colonialists “would sign up for three months or six months, and then go back home” to tend their farms or shops. Black and Native American recruits tended to stay in their regiments longer. In Mitchell’s words, “they found themselves with guns in their hands, a little money in their pockets and belonging to something.”
Black veterans who survived, says Mitchell, came back with new convictions and created institutions for their communities. Some hoped to gain freedom with their military service, others already had their freedom. In New England, they started black churches, schools and fraternal organizations including Masonic lodges. “This was the beginning of the civil rights movement and the possibility of blacks organizing,” he says.
For generations, the Daughters of the American Revolution resisted membership applications from black Americans and didn’t admit its first Black member until 1977. When a Washington state chapter declined to admit Lena S. Ferguson, a school secretary, in 1984, she prepared to sue and obtained a settlement from the organization that forced it to rewrite its bylaws to explicitly state it was open women of all backgrounds. The agreement also committed the DAR to commission research on the role of African American troops during the war. That resulted in the publication of Forgotten Patriots, a 2008 publication that contains over 6,600 names of people of African American, Native American and blended backgrounds who joined the fighting force of the Continental Army.
That research was painstaking, recalls Louis Wilson, emeritus professor of Africana Studies at Smith College and co-director of Harvard’s Black Patriot Project. The challenge he faced as a historian was finding the evidence of service, thousands of old records and notes squirreled away in local archives. A 2003 conference brought Wilson and fellow historians together to coordinate their methods for a multi-state effort to document African American Revolutionary troops. They then delved into materials that DAR had amassed and complemented those records with their own state-by-state hunting in small archives. Each name needed at least two primary sources to be counted.
Wilson found that New England slaveholders assigned unusual names to the enslaved, like Caesar, Pharoah, and Prince. Wilson says these names were another way of setting the enslaved apart, a way of signaling publicly, “You’re not white.”
Beyond counting these men (he hasn’t found any women in the records so far), the evidence gave Wilson a glimpse of their lives. In Rhode Island, many were free Blacks who provided military service in place of someone white. These were colonists who, expecting a British invasion, preferred to keep close to home rather than serve in a remote place like Pennsylvania. So, they joined the state militia (which stayed in Rhode Island) and found black men to fill spots for the Continental Army.
Some were drummers and fifers, positions that received better pay than regular soldiers regardless of whether they were Native American, African, or “mustee” (a term used for people of mixed Native American and African heritage). Those ranks held more prestige as well as more danger, since they marched in front. But none were officers. Wilson and his colleagues in other states found no records of African American or Native American soldiers deserting or abandoning their units. “Most blacks enlisted and stayed in because they had a better quality of life there than they did as civilians,” he says.
In Massachusetts, the documents hint at the range of the black veterans’ stories. Cuff Leonard of Bristol (now a part of Maine) served in 1777-1778 and then returned to the roster of the 7th Regiment until his discharge on June 10, 1783 by General Washington. He was awarded a medal for capturing six Hessians. Pompey Peters of Worcester enlisted in May 1778 and served five years, survived a skirmish at the Battle of Monmouth, and was present at the British surrender at Yorktown.
One 22-year-old from Hanover, southeast of Boston, enlisted for three years in the 2nd Plymouth County Regiment. He was at Valley Forge during the brutal winter encampment of early 1778 and discharged in 1780. Many years later, his pension application recounted that he’d been stolen from Africa as an 8-year-old boy, brought to America and sold to a man named Bailey. After the war he resumed life under his birth name, Dunsick. He married and raised a family on land he bought in Leeds, Maine.
Red Mitchell believes that black veterans returned with connections to their compatriots in other states, and that nurtured the spread of Prince Hall Masonic lodges in places like Providence and Philadelphia. The lodges in both cities trace their origins to charters from Prince Hall in 1792.
Hall’s influence would be felt beyond the Masonic community. After the Revolution, he had become one of Boston’s most prominent black citizens and led another petition to the Massachusetts General Court in 1788 to end the slave trade. Along with petitions by the Quakers and Boston ministers, Hall’s appeal led to the state passing an act in March 1788 to end the slave trade there. Rhode Island’s new constitution, too, left out slavery.
Was Hall’s activism crucial? “The petitions certainly played a role,” notes Révauger, “but Prince Hall Masons were not the only abolitionists at the time.” Still, says Red Mitchell, Hall’s advocacy was amplified by prominent white Bostonians who encountered him, including John Adams and Jeremy Belknap, who founded the Boston Athenaeum, one of America’s oldest independent libraries. “So he had the things going for him that I’m sure influenced his interest, knowhow and ability to organize,” says Mitchell.
For Wilson, the Prince Hall memorial stands for the thousands of others like him who fought in the war. “It's about how the war transformed America.”
One reason black Revolutionary veterans weren’t counted by history until now involved the process for dispensing pensions. A veteran had to submit a document to confirm his claim. For many the only document was their discharge papers. “I have 12 discharge papers signed by George Washington for blacks who fought in Rhode Island,” said Wilson. “The irony is those discharge papers with George Washington's name on them did not go back to the family. They remained in Washington, D.C. So over time, the family had no history of that event.”
Now thanks to the work of Wilson, University of Massachusetts historian Sidney Kaplan and other researchers, the DAR has several dozen black members in their organization.
But changing America’s origin story isn’t easy. The true number of black Revolutionary troops is most likely higher than the 6,600 names in Forgotten Patriots, according to Wilson, who logged more than 700 names in Rhode Island alone. Kaplan documented 1,246 names in Massachusetts, four times the figure listed in Forgotten Patriots. “Twelve hundred changes the equation about who served and what the war was about,” according to Wilson. With numbers that high, he says, “We've got to ask, ‘So what was this war about now? And who are the heroes?’”
Meanwhile Clarence Snead has started a Gofundme campaign to rebuild the Masonic lodge in Providence. “We have a plan [for rebuilding],” he says after going through the site with a contractor. “We’re not sitting around, because that’s not what Prince Hall would want us to do.”
Editor's note, March 3, 2021: This story has been updated to clarify that Jeremy Belknap founded the Massachusetts Historical Society and not the Boston Athenaeum.