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John Edward Bruce, 1856-1924
Prince Hall, the Pioneer of Negro Masonry. Proofs of the Legitimacy of Prince Hall Masonry
New York: Hunt Printing Company, 1921.


Prince Hall's early life has been the subject of some debate. John Edward Bruce, author of Prince Hall, The Pioneer of Negro Masonry: Proofs of the Legitimacy of Prince Hall Masonry, reports that he was born in 1748, though some sources indicate that he was born in 1735. The place of his birth is unknown. Although he was reportedly "born free" as the son of an English father and a free black mother, he apparently traveled to Boston as the slave of William Hall. However these events transpired, Prince Hall acquired "manumission papers," became a manufacturer of leather goods, and "may have fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill" (Newman). He began his lifelong campaign for abolition during the war and championed civil rights in other areas, including the provision of free schools for blacks, state funding for emigration to Africa, and restrictions on slave trading and kidnapping in Massachusetts. Hall became active as a Freemason as early as 1775, and after the Revolutionary War he founded the first black Masonic lodge in the United States. The lodge was certified by the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) as "African Masonic Lodge No. 459" (Newman). Members later renamed the lodge "African Lodge No. 1," and it eventually developed into the tradition of "Prince Hall Freemasonry." Although the English organization omitted the lodge (along with other American lodges) from its rolls during the War of 1812, Prince Hall Freemasonry has continued uninterrupted since its inception. In 1994, the UGLE adopted a resolution to recognize the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Massachusetts as a "regular" and approved Masonic organization (Bessel).

John Edward Bruce was a prominent African American journalist who was also known as "Bruce Grit." He was born on February 22, 1856, in Piscataway, Maryland, on the plantation of Major Harvey Griffin. Bruce's nickname refers to his "unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger" (Crowder 6). Both of his parents, Robert and Martha Allen Clark Bruce, were enslaved at his time of birth. Bruce's father was sold to a slaveholder in Georgia early in his life. After the sale of her husband, Martha started a business "selling pies and hot coffee to soldiers at Fort Washington" that was permitted by Griffin, the plantation owner (Crowder 8). At the start of the Civil War, when Union soldiers passed through Maryland, Bruce and his mother escaped to Washington, DC, and then to Connecticut. John Edward Bruce did not let the circumstances of his birth hinder his aspirations; by the age of 18 he was already working as an assistant for the New York Times. Although Bruce attended Howard University for a short period of time, he says that formally he received only a "third-grade education" (Crowder 5) because he was constantly busy working odd jobs for his family. During his lifetime, Bruce started many newspapers, including the Weekly Argus and the Sunday Item. He was a devout Christian, and he often encouraged people to uphold Christian principles in his writings, but he also focused on the spiritual needs religion served for people. Bruce's greatest influence on the post-Civil War political climate consisted of the lectures he gave on the government's responsibility to uphold the rights of its black citizens. He frequently reported on the lynchings that often occurred in the South following the Civil War. Bruce also was a member of the Republican National Committee, an active Prince Hall Mason, and a co-founder of the Negro Society for Historical Research. His funeral in New York City was attended by over 5,000 mourners (Crowder 158).

Prince Hall was published by Hunt Printing Company in 1921. The booklet outlines the history of Prince Hall Masonry and argues that it is a legitimate entity, despite the fact that some Freemasons had questioned its legitimacy. Bruce emphasizes "the great importance and need of keeping historical records and correct biographical sketches of the important men in the [Freemason] order" so that an accurate "history of Negro Masonry" can one day be written (p. 2). Bruce describes Hall's life and his influence on the African American lodge in Boston, Massachusetts, and he repeatedly campaigns for the entire organization of Freemasons to recognize the "legality of the Great Lodge" of Prince Hall Masons (p. 10). Bruce concludes that "Prince Hall Masonry is not only legitimate, but . . . its claim to legitimacy antedates that of those Lodges of white men which questioned the legitimacy of its warrant" (p. 12).

Works Cited: Bessel, Paul, "Masonic Recognition Issues," PHA-UGLE. 2012. 5 Apr 2012. ; Crowder, Ralph, John Edward Bruce: Politician, Journalist, and Self-Trained Historian (New York: New York UP, 2004); Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; Newman, Richard, "Hall, Prince," Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895 (via Oxford African American Studies Center), referenced 24 May 2012.

Maya Kiel

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