The usually accepted accounts of his life has it that Prince Hall was born in Bridgetown, Barbados, British West Indies, on the 12th of September, 1748, the son of Thomas Prince Hall, …. All of which is untrue!
For decades we have been trying to undo the damage done by the errors and misstatements of William Grimshaw about the history of Prince Hall Freemasonry.
Recent research by white and black authors influenced the reassessment of Grimshaw’s work and this has led to the discounting of him as a Masonic historian. Some observers have even said that they wished that his book had not been published, for it has misled not only subsequent writers, but also leaders and orators.
Charles Wesley 1983
The real object of Freemasonry, in a philosophical and religious sense, is the search for truth. These are the words of William Grimshaw, who in 1903 wrote the book Official History of Freemasonry Among the Colored People in North America. This book quickly became the most quoted source of historical data on Prince Hall masonry in existence. The early history of many Prince Hall grand lodges is based on the data presented by Grimshaw. Unfortunately, Grimshaw did not give the sources for the voluminous data in his book, nor did he give a bibliography of his references. What is worse, during the last half century, much of what Grimshaw wrote about Prince Hall has been discredited as fabrications.
Joseph A. Walkes, Jr., in his Black Square and Compass tells it like this:
“The usually accepted accounts of his life has it that Prince Hall was born in Bridgetown, Barbados, British West Indies, on the 12th of September, 1748, the son of Thomas Prince Hall, an English leather merchant, and his wife, a free Negro woman of ‘French descent.’ After supposedly serving his apprenticeship in the leather trade, Prince Hall went to Boston, arriving in 1765 and by hard work he became a freeholder and a voter. He was converted to Methodism and became an ordained minister. All of which is untrue!
Charles Wesley, in his book, Prince Hall Life and Legacy, is much harsher and points out that one author after another took Grimshaw’s story as factual and endorsed and perpetuated Grimshaw’s fanciful stories as historic fact:
Most major sources of black Masonic history have been largely untrustworthy, inadequate and therefore unreliable. Several important books, however, have appeared. William Grimshaw published in 1903 his Official History of Free Masonry Among Colored People in North America. George W. Crawford issued his Prince Hall and His Followers in 1914. Harry A Williamson published small booklets, A Chronological History of Prince Hall Masonry in 1934, The Prince Hall Primer in 1946, and articles of Masonic history in New York State. Arthur Schomburg published his Masonic Truths: a Letter and Document, (n.d.). Harry E. Davis published a more complete History of Freemasonry Among Negroes in America in 1946 and Harold Van Buren Voorhis brought out his Negro Masonry in the United States. These publications, however, attempted to tell in their first pages the story of Prince Hall, but one relied on the other for supportive facts with little or no authentic materials. Grimshaw in the earliest published work used his imagination and gave it wide range, creating materials, opinions and views which were not truthful in the attempt to render an interesting account. The repetition of this story without a sound basis has led astray more than one author, including myself. Recent research by white and black authors influenced the reassessment of Grimshaw’s work and this has led to the discounting of him as a Masonic historian. Some observers have even said that they wished that his book had not been published, for it has misled not only subsequent writers, but also leaders and orators.
Much has been written about Grimshaw and his fabrications, yet even today writers from both the main stream and the Prince Hall side continue to quote elements of Grimshaw that have been shown time and again to be either false or unreliable. A part of the reason is that Grimshaw has been so widely quoted, often by credible writers, that uninformed readers do not know that the material is taken from a discredited source. For this reason, the Phylaxis Society has established a Grimshaw Offensive whose purpose will be to identify Grimshaw falsehoods by reference number and to attach as much rebuttal material to each one as can be found. Phylaxis members are invited to submit any rebuttal material we might miss so that future historians can determine for themselves whether the writings of Grimshaw are credible or not.
Grimshaw’s accounts were descriptive and seemed realistic. His ideas, words, images and expressions have been accepted not only by readers but also by authors who used them in their publications, because there was no other source known and available for research purposes concerning Prince Hall. It was in vain that subsequent writers often looked for his historical sources of information but failed to find them. Grimshaw created description, personal accounts and stories for which there were no sources, and accordingly they are not history today and are now regarded in the category of the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree Wesley.
To date, Grimshaw has been most thoroughly discredited in his story of Prince Hall and the early history of African Lodge 459. That he has not been discredited in his jurisdictional histories does not confirm the legitimacy of these writings; it merely shows that these writings have not been as thoroughly scrutinized as has been the history of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts and the history of our founder, Prince Hall. As a source of historic information, Grimshaw must be treated with caution and suspicion. Grand Lodge historians are advised to discover how much of their published history is taken from Grimshaw, and they are further advised to confirm Grimshaw’s accounts using proceedings, minutes, and other independent sources. The rational approach is to view all unconfirmed data for which Grimshaw is the original source as being rumor and not to be trusted until an independent source, a source that precedes Grimshaw (earlier that 1903) can be found to confirm what Grimshaw has written. Anything written after 1903 that does not quote the source may simply be taken from Grimshaw.
I am convinced that William Grimshaw was a devoted Mason and a deeply religious man who wanted nothing more than to celebrate the history of Prince Hall and the organization that Prince Hall founded. Consider these words from Grimshaw:
The great truths of Masonry heeded, constitute a security within and an impregnable fortress surrounding the human soul against which the weapons of evil will fall broken at our feet, and we are as little harmed as the atoms which dance in the sunbeams and nestle against our window panes.
The fact is that Grimshaw did a great disservice to the craft, and more than a century after his book was published, we are embroiled with unraveling the falsehoods he set upon us as our ‘official history.’
The founder and first president of the Phylaxis Society, Joseph A. Walkes, Jr., was justifiably livid:
Grimshaw was probably well-meaning in his attempt to enlarge beyond the bounds of truth regarding Prince Hall’s life. The stories cooked-up by him are inexcusable and cannot be justified. Such falsehoods as Prince Hall’s ‘being born in Bridgetown, Barbados on the 12th of September 1748, the son of Thomas Prince Hall’.’ All were figments of Grimshaw’s overly active imagination and cannot be overlooked as an innocent stretching of the truth. These tales were accepted by Freemasonry, Black as well as White the world over, copied and recopied not only by the Craft, but by historians of Black history with the result that many of the falsehoods are recorded in these books and taught in black study courses across the country even to the point that some of it has found its way into the higher degrees of Prince Hall Freemasonry.
Wesley points out also that, ‘He also wrote as if he were there, on the spot, standing by hearing the words spoken and then writing them.’ A case in point:
When twelve years old young Hall was placed as an apprentice to a leather worker. He made rapid progress in the trade. His greatest desire, however, was to visit America. When he confided this wish to his parents they gave him no encouragement, but he was determined to seize the first opportunity offered to accomplish his desire. With eager eyes he watched every sail that entered the harbor in the hope that he might hear the words, ‘bound for America.’ This anxiety continued for a long time before his heart’s desire was realized. At last the opportunity came. One morning in February of 1765, young Prince heard the glad tidings that there was a vessel in port bound for America. He at once saw the captain and offered to work his way for the passage. The captain hesitated, but seeing that the lad meant what he said, he finally agreed to take him.
The fall of 1807 found Prince Hall enjoying a degree of health and vigor of mind and body, working at this trade. At other times he could be seen ploughing through snow and rain storms, carrying relief to some poor widow or orphan and whispering words of comfort in the ear of some sick brother.?ÿ While on this errand of mercy he caught a heavy cold, which rapidly developed into pneumonia, from which he never recovered. When his brethren and other friends would call and ask him how he felt, he would reply: ‘It is all right.’
In the Voorhis book, it is charged that Grimshaw’s data were frequently untrustworthy, which now seems too charitable for errors that appear to be deliberately twisted facts, invented material and reconstructed photographs used to illustrate the works. So serious were these errors that Voorhis very honorably felt obliged to withdraw for sale his book of 1949.
Grimshaw, William, Official History of Freemasonry Among the Colored People in North America, Kessinger Publishing’s Rare Mystical Reprints, page 5.
Walkes, Joseph, Black Square and Compass: 200 Years of Prince Hall Freemasonry, Macoy Publishing & Masonic Supply Co., Inc., Richmond, Virginia, p 3.
Wesley, Charles H., Prince Hall Life and Legacy, The United Supreme Council Southern Jurisdiction, PHA, Washington, DC, 1983, p xv.
Ibid., p 14.
Grimshaw, op cit., p 7.
Walkes, op cit., p 8.
Wesley, op cit., p 14.
Grimshaw, op cit., p 69.
Ibid, p 94.
Henry Wilson Coil’s Masonic Encyclopedia quoted in Wesley, op cit., p 17