In 1775, the first year of the American Revolution, the Masonic Lodge in Massachusetts rejected Prince Hall's application for membership because be was black.
Hall, it was said, was bitterly disappointed because he had been promised serious consideration by Gen. Joseph Warren, grandmaster in the Massachusetts Lodge. But Warren was killed in the Battle of Bunker Hill the same year.
Undaunted, Hall appealed to the secretary of the British Lodge. Several black Americans had organized themselves into an "African Lodge," he said - and they wanted admission into Masonry. When the British granted recognition in 1784, it was the beginning of black Masonry in America.
Charles H. Wesley unearthed this story in researching his recently published book," Prince Hall: Life and Legacy," and also found out that the black Masons are still going strong in 1977 - with 227 people reaching the 33d degree at the recent convention for the Southern jurisdiction.
"That's just the southern area," Wesley points out. "These were people of all income groups paying $300 for that degree."
Masonry is growing among blacks. In 1975, Masonic officials estimated there were 275,000 black Masons in the U.S., with about 7,500 of them in Washington. In the same year, it was estimated that one of every 12 white American men was a Mason.
Wesley, 85, is a historian and the author of 25 books and 130 articles, and has been intrigued by Hall's story since he became a Mason in 1919.
"In 1944, I was speaking and writing about the Masons, but I couldn't find much material on Prince Hall. In the 1950s, I was writing a history of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Ohio and I still couldn't find much material."
Wesley even made a trip to Barbados looking for evidence of Hall's birth, but found no records.He searched through libraries and archieves in Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, pulling together scattered records.
"It may well be that I saved Prince Hall from destruction," Wesley said, sitting in the living room of his Taylor Street NW, home. "There were growing forgeries about him. There was no evidence that Hall was born in Barbados - as many people thought. There've been so many frauds about blacks in history. I want to do my part in straightening out some of the facts."
In his long career, Wesley has been head of the history department at Howard University, president of Wilberforce College and Central State College and executive director of the Association Life and History. he believes that Afro-American historians should not confine themselves to writing about blacks.
"I've written about both blacks and whites," he said. "And the people who have read my books have not been a restrictive audience." Conversely, Wesley believes that black history needs to be written by Afro-American historians, he said. "It cannot be written effectively by whites," the historian contended. "Black history has become a new market with a growing audience. It's not surprising that many white scholars are going into it.
"But in the end a historian ought to write about his own personal interests. I've tried to do that. I'm not a believer in race. I believe people differe individually. There are group characterisitcs. I do not believe in racial classifications. We're not all black or white."