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Hidden in Plain Sight: African American Secret Societies and Black Freemasonry

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The churches and the fraternal/mutual aid societies formed the core of black communities during the latter part of the eighteenth century. These institutions served as the staging ground for reform and protest organizations and were the foundation of the social and economic structure of black society. They were central to an African American sense of identity. Because there were few opportunities for blacks to participate in the wider society; political, social, and educational goals found an outlet in the institutions of the black community. These organizations became extremely important because they provided their members with mutual aid and protection, whether it was religious, cultural, social, recreational, physical, economic, or political.

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  1. Crawford’s book was first published in 1914 by the Crisis, the literary arm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

  2. Charles H. Wesley was not only a Mason, he taught history at Howard University, and was the President of both Wilberforce and Central State College in Ohio, as well as an ordained Minister of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.

  3. Joseph Walkes, Jr. has written several pamphlets and books on Prince Hall Freemasonry. He has also served as the President of the Phylaxis Society, a literary organization affiliated with Prince Hall Freemasonry.

  4. Many of these studies focused primarily on white fraternal orders in the United States because of their practice of excluding women and minorities. These include Mary Ann Clawson’s Constructing Brotherhood (1989), Mark C. Carnes’ Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America (1989), and Lynn Dumenil’s Freemasonry and American Culture (1984), to name a few.

  5. No evidence has been found to support Grimshaw’s and others’ claim that he was a Methodist preacher.

  6. Sarah Ritchie, who died in 1769 on the back of her tombstone was engraved the words: Here lies the body of/Prince Hall/First Grand Master of the/Colored Grand Lodge of/Mason in Mass./Died Dec. 7, 1807. Gray points out that even the date on the tombstone recording his death is incorrect. See also Dictionary of American Negro Biography edited by Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1982), 278–279; Roger Lane, William Dorsey’s Philadelphia and Ours: On the Past and Future of the Black City in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 280.


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Correspondence to Paul Lawrence Dunbar.

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Dunbar, P.L. Hidden in Plain Sight: African American Secret Societies and Black Freemasonry. J Afr Am St 16, 622–637 (2012).

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