The Boston Plan
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In 1787, two decades before African colonization by American-born blacks became a national debate, Boston's Black Masons put forward a plan to return themselves and their families to Africa.
On March 6, 1775, Prince Hall and fourteen other black men were initiated into British Military Lodge No. 441 of the Masons at Fort Independence, Massachusetts, having been barred from existing American fraternal organizations. On July 3, 1775, the black Masons organized African Lodge No. 1 under a qualified permit, naming Hall as Grand Master. The lodge met at "the sine of the Golden Fleece," from which Hall conducted his catering and leather dressing business.
It was May 6, 1787 before the African Lodge received an official charter from London and was renumbered No 459. With Hall's help, other lodges were organized in Philadelphia in 1797 and in Providence, Rhode Island.
As the first black society in American history devoted to social, political, and economic improvement, the Black Masons had a tremendous impact on the wider community, involving themselves in every battle for the liberty and rights of blacks. James Swan, one of Boston's Sons of Liberty, revealed that he had reprinted his argument against slavery "at the earnest desire of the Negroes in Boston," a group that undoubtedly included Prince Hall and his fellow Masons.
In 1787, a committee of twelve of the African Lodge, headed by Grand Master Prince Hall, drafted a petition to the General Court (state legislature) of Massachusetts. The document was signed by seventy-three "African Blacks" who proposed a detailed plan "to return to Africa, our native country...where we shall live among our equals, and be more comfortable and happy, than we can be in our present situation."
The Boston Plan was, in fact, a network of plans, a prototype for similar undertakings in other parts of the country. As Mason Samuel Stevens, the first to sign the petition, wrote to Anthony Tyler in Newport: "We hartly agree with you in sending surcular Letters to our free Black to all States, as it will Strengthen our Number."
Years of abuse had led the Boston petitioners to believe that despite the relief "in some measure delivered by the new constitution which has been adopted by this state" (under which Elizabeth Freeman, Quock Walker and others had gained their freedom), that their "very disagreeable and disadvantageous circumstances" would likely continue "so long as we and our children live in America."
They proposed that the General Court provide money to "procure lands to settle upon; and to obtain a passage for us and our families; and to furnish us with the necessary provisions and the utensils and articles."
The House accepted the petition, but despite early optimism, it remained buried in committee.
Image Credit: Courtesy of Massachusetts Archives
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