Freemasons, Africa Americans, Prince Hall
All Men Free and Brethren presents the current state of scholarship on African American Prince Hall Freemasonry. It is both a rich collection of essays that cover a wide array of topics and time periods and an indispensable guide for further research. All the chapters work together to form a cohesive narrative of the history of African American Freemasons. Common themes within this book are the creative tension within Freemasonry between claims of universality and exclusive practices; the connections between African American Masons and other institutions, especially black churches; and the active engagement of Freemasons in political activism. In the editors’ introduction, Peter P. Hinks and Stephen Kantrowitz provide a readable summary of African American Freemasonry from its founding in the late eighteenth century to the present. This book is an important addition to the small but growing list of scholarship focused on African American Freemasonry that includes other publications by the authors of this volume and recent works by Theda Skocpol, Ariane Liazos, and Marshall Ganz.
The eight main chapters are organized chronologically. Readers of the JER may be especially interested in the chapters written by Chernoh M. Sesay Jr., Peter Hinks, Julie Winch, and Corey D. B. Walker, which cover the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and which effectively connect African American Freemasonry to broader scholarship on the early United States. [End Page 306]
Chernoh Sesay analyzes the social and economic origins of African American Freemasonry, particularly in eighteenth-century Boston, and provides an accurate account of the difficulties and strategies employed by black Bostonians moving from slavery to freedom. He suggests that the early African Lodge is best understood as “a complicated form of northern urban leadership arising from the tension produced by gaining release from bondage but not achieving equal citizenship” (23).
Peter Hinks’s chapter explores the exchanges and interactions that occurred between American and Haitian black Masons and analyzes the strong connections between African American Freemasonry and reform movements, especially abolitionism. By analyzing the life of John Telemachus Hilton, Hinks argues that African American Freemasonry was “a highly progressive, even radical, order of select black men,” who believed that living according to Masonic, Christian, and republican principles would help fundamentally reform America and eliminate slavery (45). According to Hinks, “African American Freemasons directly challenged the inequities and stark deficiencies of the nation while simultaneously embracing an identity with it and whatever virtuous ideals it upheld” (55).
Julie Winch’s chapter explores the lives of the earliest black Masons in Philadelphia from 1797 to 1800. In this crucial period, when Philadelphia’s African Lodge came into being, Winch argues that the black Masons were a diverse, cosmopolitan group who affiliated with different churches, practiced a wide range of professions, and had varied educational levels. Winch also shows how this lodge was founded and grew from not only connections with Masons in Boston and London but also out of the churches, schools, and benevolent societies that black Philadelphians formed prior to 1797.
In a brief but thoughtful chapter, Corey Walker argues that African American Freemasons, unlike some white founders such as Thomas Jefferson, created a “political language that critically blended religious and political ideas and pressed them simultaneously” to challenge the exclusion of African Americans from the American polity (85). By analyzing public orations and remonstrations, principally those written by Prince Hall, Walker shows how the “civil theology” of Freemasonry enabled African Americans to critique their exclusion from the polity and also to justify their demands for inclusion therein.
The book’s other chapters, primarily covering the 1860s through the [End Page 307] twentieth century, are also well written and thoroughly researched. Stephen Kantrowitz connects the history of nationwide African American Freemasonry to the history of Reconstruction. He argues that the expansion of African American Freemasonry into the South and West after the Civil War occurred despite the failures of white Masons to recognize black lodges...