PIONEERS IN AMERICAN FREEDOM

Reading Time: 10 minutes

West Indians have been coming to the United States for over a century. The part they have played in the progress of the Afro-Americans in their long march from slavery to freedom has always been an important factor. More important is the fact that the most outstanding of these Caribbean-Americans saw their plight and the plight of the Afro-American as being one and the same. As early as 1827 a Jamaican, John B. Russwurm, one of the founders of Liberia, was the first coloured man to be graduated from an American college and to publish a newspaper in this country: sixteen years later his fellow country­man. Peter Ogden, organized in New York City the first Odd-Fellows’ Lodge for Negroes- Prior to the Civil “War, West Indian contribution to the progress of the Afro-American life was one of the main con­tributing factors in the fight for freedom and full citizenship in the northern part of the United States. In his book, SouL of Black Folk, Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois says that the West Indians were mainly responsible for the manhood program presented by the lace in the early decades of the last century. Indicative of their tendency to blaze new paths is the achievement of John W. A. Shaw of Antigua, who, i” the early 90s oT the last century, passed the civil service tests and became deputy commissioner of taxes for the County of Queens in New York State.

In 18th century America, two of the most out­standing fighters for liberty and justice were the West Indians—Prince Hall and John B. Russwurm. When Prince Hall came to the United States the nation was in turmoil. The colonies were ablaze with in­dignation. Britain, with a series of revenue acts, had stoked the fires of colonial discontent. In Virginia, Patrick Henry was speaking of liberty or death. The cry “No Taxation Without Representation” played on the nerve strings of the nation. Prince Hall, then a delicate-looking teen-ager, often walked through the turbulent streets of Boston, an observer unobserved. A few months before these hectic scenes, he had ar­rived in the United States from his home in Barbados, where he had been born about 1748, the son of an Englishman and a free African woman. He was, in theory, a free man. but he knew that neither in Boston nor in Barbados were persons of African descent free in fact. At once, he questioned the sincerity of the vocal white patriots of Boston. It never seemed to have occurred to them that the announced prin­ciples motivating their action was stronger argument in favour ol destroying the system of slavery. The colonists held in servitude more than a half million human beings, some of them white; yet they engaged in the contradiction of going to war to support the theory that all men were created equal.

When Prince Hall arrived in Boston that city was the center of the American slave trade. Most of the major leaders of the revolutionary movement, in fact, were slaveholders or investors in slave-supported businesses. Hall, like many other Americans, wondered: what did these men mean by freedom?

The condition of the free black men, as Prince Hall found them, was not an enviable one. Eman­cipation brought neither freedom nor relief from the stigma of colour. They were free in name only. They were still included with slaves, indentured servants, and Indians in the slave codes. Discriminatory laws severely circumscribed their freedom of movement.

By 1765, Prince Hall saw little change in the condition of the blacks, and though a freeman, at least in theory, he saw his people debased as though they were slaves still in bondage. These things drove him to prepare himself for leadership among his peo­ple. So through diligence and frugality, he became a property owner, thus establishing himself in the eyes of white people as well as the blacks.

But the ownership of property was not enough. He still had to endure sneers and insults. He decided then to prepare himself for a role of leadership among his people. To this end he went to school at night, and later became a Methodist preacher. His church became the forum for his people’s grievances. Ten years after his arrival in Boston, Massachusetts, he was the accepted leader of the black community.

In 1788, Hall petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature, protesting the kidnapping of free Negroes. This was a time when American patriots were engaged in a constitutional struggle for freedom. They had proclaimed the inherent rights of all mankind to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Hall dared to remind them that the black men in the United States were human beings and as such were entitled to freedom and respect for their human personality.

Prejudice made Hall the father of African secret societies in the United States. He is the father of what is now known as Negro Masonry. Hall first sought initiation into the white Masonic Lodge in Boston, but was turned down because of his color. He then applied to the Army Lodge of an Irish Regiment. His petition was favourably received. On March 6. 1775, Hall and fourteen other black Americans were initiated in Lodge Number 441. When, on March 17, the British were forced to evacuate Boston, the Army Lodge gave Prince Hall and his colleagues a license to meet and function as a Lodge. Thus, on July 3, 1776, African Lodge No. 1 came into being. This was the first Lodge in Masonry established in America for men of African descent.

The founding of the African Lodge was one of Prince Hall’s greatest achievements. It afforded the Africans in the New England area of the United States a greater sense of security, and contributed to a new spirit of unity among them. Hall’s interest did not end with the Lodge. He was deeply con­cerned with improving the lot of his people in other ways. He sought to have schools established for the children of the free Africans in Massachusetts. Of prime importance is the fact that Prince Hall worked to secure respect for the personality of his people and also played a significant role in the downfall of the Massachusetts slave trade. He helped to prepare the groundwork for the freedom fighters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whose continuing efforts have brought the black American closer to the goal of full citizenship.