The W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University recently gave a Masonic membership certificate signed by Prince Hall, a minister, abolitionist, and civil rights activist known as the father of Black Freemasonry in the United States, to Houghton Library. Presented by Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher Jr. University Professor and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, this document is the latest in a series of gifts from the institute to Houghton intended to strengthen the library’s increasingly significant research resources for African and African-American history and literature.
“The library has been working in concert with Professor Gates over the last 15 years to strengthen our manuscript collections to support more in-depth research by students and faculty in African-American and African history,” said Leslie Morris, curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts at Houghton. “Prince Hall is an iconic figure in black history for which very, very little survives. I’ve been amazed how quickly knowledge of the document has spread, and how much we ourselves have learned about it from the discussions.”
Dated June 23, 1799, the certificate initiates abolitionist Richard P.G. Wright into the African Lodge No. 459, the first lodge formed by African Americans, which Hall co-founded. Though Hall had been initiated into Military Lodge No. 441 in Boston in 1775, following the Revolutionary War, black Masons began to face discrimination in the lodges and urged the formation of a separate organization. Hall and 13 other blacks formed African Lodge No. 459 in 1784, and Hall was elected the first grand master. The lodge was later renamed in his honor.
A leader in the African-American community, Hall came to Boston in 1765 and worked as a minister, early civil rights activist, and proponent of education for black children. Though conflicting accounts of Hall’s early life exist, he may have been born a slave in Barbados in about 1735.
Past gifts to Houghton Library have included the papers of playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, a beautifully illuminated 17th century Ethiopian manuscript prayer book, the unique first issue of Fortune’s Freeman, and numerous other rare books and recordings.
Joint purchases have included the papers of Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka, novelists Chinua Achebe and John Edgar Wideman, and writer Albert Murray, including his correspondence with Ralph Ellison. Several smaller collections are also located at Houghton, while the June Jordan papers and the Shirley Graham Du Bois papers are available at Schlesinger Library.