From the Sun Chronicle:
Honoring Black Patriot
BY RICK FOSTER
SUN CHRONICLE STAFF
Friday, July 3, 2009 2:19 AM EDT
Plainville man eyes recognition for Prince Hall
He was an outspoken contemporary of John Hancock and George Washington, a patriot and a civic leader who organized opposition to slavery and started schools for African-American children. His name is revered among the Masons, of which he was an early leader and loyal member.
Yet Prince Hall, who some historians say should be counted among America's founding fathers, rates scarcely a footnote in most history texts. Nevertheless, some scholars consider him among the most influential men of his generation whose legacy is felt to this day.
Hall might be better known today if he had been white.
"Prince Hall might be the most influential black man who ever lived in this country," said Red T. Mitchell, a retired insurance executive and history buff from Plainville who is part of a group that has organized to honor Hall with his own monument in the city of Cambridge. "He was a patriot, an abolitionist and could be considered the first civil rights organizer."
It would take another 200 years of marches, constitutional amendments and Supreme Court decisions to bring about equal rights for black as well as white Americans. But every major milestone - from the abolition of slavery to the right of minority children to an equal education - had an early advocate in Hall and his followers. Cambridge Mayor E. Denise Simmons is spearheading the effort to install a monument to Hall on the Cambridge city common, the same place where George Washington once stood at the head of the newly formed Continental Army. The $100,000 monument, funded through private donations, is due to be unveiled Sept. 12.
For decades, the freed slave who became a prominent tradesman and civil rights advocate has been shrouded in mystery. But historical research has pieced together the work of Hall from his tireless efforts to abolish slavery to his insistence on free public schools for blacks.
His efforts would later be echoed in the 14th and 15th Amendments and the historic 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
"He was, in a sense, the first black organizer in American history," writes Sidney Kaplan in his book, "The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution 1770-1800."
"His gift was to show some of his people in the new climate of independence how they might get together in defense of their social, political and economic rights," Kaplan wrote.
Born about 1735, the details of Hall's life are mostly a mystery. However, a written statement by Boston leather tanner William Hall shows that Prince Hall was a slave in his possession in the 1740s and the young black man presumably learned his trade from the white Hall.
Marriage and other records indicate that Hall opened a leather goods shop in Boston, as well as a catering business.
Other documentation, including petitions sponsored by Hall, indicate that the ex-slave was at least as politically active as his fellow tradesman, Paul Revere.
Long before the first shots of the Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord, Hall was already agitating for racial equality. Initially denied membership in a local Masonic order, Hall and other blacks in Boston asked for and were granted a Masonic charter through British sponsorship.
Hall became the first black accepted into the Masons and the first master of a black lodge. Hall and his supporters weren't satisfied with merely leveling the playing field within a fraternal organization, however, and presented British colonial Gov. Thomas Gage with a petition demanding the abolition of slavery in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Gage ignored the request, as did the state Legislature, which referred a subsequent Hall petition to the Continental Congress.
Congress ignored the request, too, foreshadowing the Civil War. However, a court ruling in 1788 did bring an end to slavery in Massachusetts, the inevitable result of Hall's agitation.
Long after the Revolution, Hall campaigned for his own community to make good on the promise in the Declaration of Independence that "All men are created equal," and particularly on behalf of black children.
In 1796, he pushed the selectmen of the town of Boston into approving a school for black children who were not welcome in the town's all-white schools. However, the town fathers welched on their promise and Hall eventually offered his own home as the first black schoolroom.
While remaining the new nation's most visible civil right advocate, however, Hall could see in an overwhelmingly white America that African Americans would continue to be the victims of insults and discrimination for some time to come.
Hall, a pragmatic man, urged perseverence coupled with patience and nonviolence.
Hall died in 1807, his work on behalf of racial equality and civil rights unfinished. But the foundation he and his compatriots laid would become a platform for greater progress under the leadership of a procession of civil rights advocates ranging from W.E.B. DuBois to Martin Luther King.
The Prince Hall Memorial Fund continues to solicit donations toward the monument in the late civil rights leader's memory.
For more information or to donate, visit Prince Hall Memorial Fund