Primus Hall was a black man native to Boston, born into bondage in the year 1756, the son of the famous Prince Hall. Although he was born a slave, Primus attained his official freedom in his teenage years.
A property owner, abolitionist, renowned veteran, and promoter of education for blacks, Primus was always busy promoting “truth and good.” One man said of Primus that “[he was] a man of good repute and well known in this City and Country – whose Character for Truth and Veracity is second to none either here or elsewhere.” Others also noted him as a man “distinguished [for his] propriety of demeanor, gentlemanly manners, and ubounded kindness.”
As a baby he was given to a man named Ezra Trask. Primus said of himself that “he never was literally considered a Slave; especially after he was given to Trask, and that Trask always repelled that appellation [name or title], when applied to Primus, with indignation – but considered him merely as an apprentice… and in no respects different from a white person under like circumstances.”
Over his lifetime Primus would become a man of many trades. Before he entered into the war, he worked as a shoemaker, soap-boiler, and a delivery truck driver.
When the American Revolution started in 1776, at the age of 19 he enlisted in the Fifth Massachusetts Regiment as an infantryman. He would first see war at the Siege of Boston. Primus was a part of the Battle of Bunker Hill, where many men performed acts of heroism. At this fight about twice as many British were slain than Americans. The colonists had to retreat only because they ran out of ammo. While the British won by technicality, they considered it a hollow victory after counting how many of their soldiers died. After that battle the colonists continued to press against their opponents until the British, who had seized all of Boston, evacuated the city.
After this victory his regiment fought at the Battle of Harlem Heights. This battle was led by Commander-in-Chief George Washington. Here 1,800 American soldiers fought against 5,000 British soldiers, and won. A little over a month later, Hall’s regiment was a part of the Battle of White Plains.
His next fight would be the famed Battle of Trenton, where Washington crossed the Delaware with more than 2,000 soldiers. The opposing British army at Trenton was composed almost entirely of Hessian mercenaries. Hessians were German soldiers, “trained from adolescence and continued their training well through adulthood until they were deemed unfit or too old to serve.” In Germany, Hessian soldiers were drilled every single day. Needless to say, they were some of the most renowned fighters in the world.
Despite this, the colonist army (who were almost all commoners) proceeded to attack. They were rewarded with a landslide victory. They captured almost the entire Hessian force, almost 1,000 soldiers. Primus captured two runaway Hessian soldiers himself after chasing the fleeing soldiers down in the cold for more than half a mile. More than 100 other Hessians were either killed or wounded in the fight. While a handful of Americans were wounded, none died from combat.
A little over a week later, still led by Washington, the Fifth Massachusetts Regiment went to war alongside the British army at the Battle of Princeton—where they were victorious. Primus re-enlisted at the battle of Saratoga, and was present for the surrender of General Burgoyne.
One of Hall’s brothers in combat would write about this battle: “We had a hard fight. [we] took the British Artillery, but lost our Captain… I was near him [Primus] when Captain Flint was shot through the body… Primus was discharged at the same time with myself…. and [he] was much esteemed by the Officers & men, as a brave & faithful Soldier in the service of his Country.”
After the battle, Washington himself signed Hall’s honorable discharge. After the Revolutionary War, he again served his country building fortifications for Castle Island at Boston Harbor during the war of 1812.
When he was not at war or at one of his trades, Primus was an active abolitionist. From 1788 on, he sent several signed petitions to state legislators on issues regarding slavery. He was one of the leaders of the abolitionist movement in Boston, regularly gathering with others to come up with ways to end slavery and the slave trade. When the British slave trade was ended in 1832, he invited all the abolitionists in Boston to his house to celebrate.
Hall was also an active leader in the African American community. He was always engaged in his father’s masonic lodge, also known as “Prince Hall Freemasonry.” He started a school for African-American children in his own home. There he taught up to 60 African-American children. At one point Hall had two Harvard University students teaching there as well. He always advocated for better education for African-American children, especially for their access to college.
He attempted to make his school a public institution in 1800. When his attempt failed, he moved the school out of his house into the famous African Meeting house, also known as “First African Baptist Church” or “First Independent Baptist Church.” The ministers there continued to fund the school until 1835, when they established the Abiel Smith School across the street from the church.
The school was named after a white philanthropist whose will donated money to the city of Boston specifically to educate black children. It would come to “educate a great number of the black children of Boston.” One of those children would become the famous African-American historian William C. Nell, author of the book “The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution”.
Primus was always very popular with young people, and was often found “recounting scenes of the revolutionary war, especially the capture of General Burgoyne, and the surrender of Cornwallis, at both of which he was present… for about two years was in the military family of General Washington, of whom he spoke with that fervor of attachment which was common to all who were personally acquainted with that great man.”
He passed away in the year 1842 after living to his mid-80s, and the city mourned his death. He was one of the most well-respected men of Boston, among soldiers and commoners alike. His footprint can still be felt on our nation through his work with abolitionism and the role he played in helping lay the foundations for educating black children in America.
Sources and Other Information:
- “The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution,” by William C. Nell
- Facts about the Hessians
- Primus Hall’s Pension Application
- Primus celebrates the end of the British slave trade
- Primus Hall’s Death
- Abiel Smith School
This article is reprinted, with permission, from BlackFoundingFathers.com.