Memorial Day Address 2017

Things we know, and things we don’t

Welcome to the Prince Hall Cemetery.  Every year, every Memorial Day, we meet at this place to commemorate the role played by Prince Hall Masonry in our national life.  And every year I do a little historical research in order to prepare for this event.  The research is always fun, but I always find myself pulled by the tension between things we know about this cemetery, and things we don’t.

The things we know.  On July 14th, 1856, this plot of land was sold by Davis Locke of West Cambridge (today’s town of Arlington) to William B. Kendall of Boston.  Kendall was Master of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge.  We also know that Master Kendall paid taxes on this land starting in 1857.  That year he paid $4.35 in property taxes to the Town of West Cambridge.  We know that because his payment is documented in the 1857 town report.  He continued to pay property taxes on this lot until after he died in the 1870s, and his estate continued to pay the property tax even afterward.  That’s all in the town records.

We also know that in 1864 Kendall in turn sold the lot to the Prince Hall Grand Lodge, placing it “forever in trust for a Masonic Burial Ground, to be called Prince Hall Cemetery forever…”  That’s why we are gathered here.  We also know that administration of the cemetery was taken up by an organization called the “Prince Hall Mystic Cemetery Association”, formed sometime between 1864 and 1868 by six masons from your lodge.  We do know all their names; amongst them were Dr. Samuel T. Birmingham and William B Kendall.  Both were former Grand Masters of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge.

But what we don’t know is frequently more beguiling than what we know.  How many Masons are buried here?  Records suggest four.  But we know the names of only two:  Jonas Clark and William Derby, both members of the Prince Hall Mystic Cemetery Association.  Who were the other two?  And what happened to the headstones?  We don’t know.

Another enigma involves a plot of land next to this cemetery.   Research shows the lot behind that fence was purchased jointly by three or four members of the “Prince Hall Mystic Cemetery Association”.  They purchased quite a large plot of land at the time – it has since been subdivided.  But for what purpose?  Was it to expand the cemetery?  Or were they business partners planning to build something?  Or was it just land speculation?  We don’t know.  In any event, the lot was sold off in the 1880s.

The biggest unknowns involve why this cemetery fell into obscurity.  Burials stopped by the end of the 1800s.  Why?  And what happened to the six members of the “Prince Hall Mystic Cemetery Association”?  Besides the two we know are buried here, another two left the state, one for Florida, the other for parts unknown.  Why did they leave, particularly after owning so much property here?  And what happened to the last two members?  Finally, what happened to the Association itself?  Did it gain any new members during its lifetime?  Or did it simply fade away as the original members died or left the state?  Those are all open questions – mysteries.

Memorial Day is a day of remembrance.  But some things cannot be remembered any more; those things become mysteries.  So as I research this cemetery every year, I like to think that this historic place has some interesting mysteries, and those mysteries are part of its ever evolving history.

Thank you for listening, and I wish you all the best of health and happiness on Memorial Day.