History of the York Rite Amongst the Prince Hall Fraternity

The Prince Hall Fraternity embraces all the high degrees of the York Rite. In these higher degrees, the Capitular Rite is worked in the Chapters of the Royal Arch, the Cryptic Rite in Councils of Royal and Select Masters, and the Chivalric Rite in the Commandery of Knights Templar. Tracing the history of the development of these three branches within the Prince Hall family is difficult because of the lack of early records.

The Royal Arch and Templar Degrees

One Masonic historian (Grimshaw, 1903) states that a group of black masons who had been arched abroad received a Royal Arch charter from Prov. G.M. George Harrison in 1776. The charter was not used until 1820 when Union Chapter was established in Philadelphia, where Caesar Thomas was elected High Priest. Grimshaw also states that the Duke of Sussex, Grand Master of England, gave a dispensation to Passey Benjamine, a West Indian black mason, to establish commanderies in the West Indies and the United States. Benjamine organized St. George Commandery in Philadelphia in 1820. St. George's membership was composed of black masons who had received their Templar degrees in Europe and the West Indies. While this information has not been verified, it is thought that England had Templar bodies (independent of craft lodges) in Jamaica(1794), Bermuda(1802), Haiti(1811), and St. Kitts(1812). In 1844, three Philadelphia Royal Arch Chapters, Union(1820), Jerusalem(1826) and Friendship(1844) met and organized the First African Independent Grand Chapter. The minutes indicate that Jacob Jenkins was elected Grand High Priest. In the same year and same city, the First African Grand Encampment was organized. After these two grand bodies were organized, the Capitular and Chivalric degrees spread to every Prince Hall jurisdiction in the United States.

The Royal and Select Master Degrees

The Cryptic degrees were slower to take root in the Prince Hall Fraternity. It was not until August 14, 1916 that the Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons for Ohio, at its session at Dayton, sanctioned the establishment of Councils of Royal and Select Masters. Three Councils were authorized: Adoniram No. 1 in Cleveland, Zabud No. 2 in Toledo, and Herald No. 3 in Columbus. On August 13, 1917, a convention of delegates from these three councils organized a Grand Council at Cincinnati, and it was incorporated under the laws of Ohio on December 21, 1920. Councils were soon organized in Dayton, Oberlin, Boston, Zanesville, Chicago, Newark, Portsmouth, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Springfield. Deputies were appointed for Pennsylvania, Indiana, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. It was not until after the Great Depression of 1929 that Councils spread to other Prince Hall jurisdictions.

This article was edited from A History of Freemasonry Among Negroes in America by Harry E. Davis, 1946