Mutual Benefit Societies, African American Community during Slavery, African American Identity: Vol. I, 1500-1865, Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature, Toolbox Library, National Humanities Center

Mutual Benefit Societies, African American Community during Slavery, African American Identity: Vol. I, 1500-1865, Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature, Toolbox Library, National Humanities Center

Free African Society, founding document, 1787New York African Society for Mutual Relief, cofounder’s address, 1809, excerpts (PDF)Negro mutual benefit societies in Philadelphia, list and contributions, 1831 (PDF)New York Phoenix Society, goals, 1833 (PDF)

A fitting introduction to this section on antebellum black mutual benefit associations is a sample of titles, sites, and founding dates:

  • Free African Union Society, Newport, RI, 1780s
  • Free African Society, Boston, 1787
  • Free Dark Men of Color, Charleston, 1791
  • New York African Society for Mutual Relief, 1808
  • African Benevolent Society, Chillicothe, Ohio, 1827
  • Baltimore Society for Relief in Case of Seizure, 1830
  • Afric American Female Literary Association, Philadelphia, 1831
  • Coloured American Temperance Society, Philadelphia, 1831
  • Phoenix Society, New York City, 1833
  • Adelphic Union Library Association, Boston, 1836
  • Young Men’s Literary and Moral Reform Society, Pittsburgh, 1837

Mutual assistance and self-help have been cornerstones of African American community for generations. Here we offer texts that document what, in 1903, W E. B. Du Bois called “the first wavering step of a people toward organized social life.”1 The earliest mutual assistance societies among free blacks provided a form of health and life insurance for their members—care of the sick, burials for the dead, and support for widows and orphans. Later societies sought to promote education and job training, especially for newly arrived African Americans, freemen and fugitive slaves. While the number of societies attests to the wide-ranging efforts of northern free blacks, most were hampered by low funds and low membership.

  1. Free African Society, Philadelphia, 1787. Founded by the black ministers Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, the Free African Society listed its goals—as well as its expectations of all members—in its founding document. Members would contribute money to a fund from which a weekly sum would be paid to the “needy of this society . . . provided, this necessity is not brought on them by their own imprudence.” The society was nondenominational to include free blacks of all religious sects, as no one sect had enough members to create its own mutual aid society. “How great a step this was,” wrote W. E. B. Du Bois, “we of to-day scarcely realize.”1
  2. New York African Society for Mutual Relief, 1808. Similar to the Free African Society, the New York society was formed two decades later to provide a form of health and life insurance for its members and their families. In this 1809 address the president and cofounder of the society, William Hamilton, exhorted its members to be firm in their commitment to the society i.e., to each other. “Let us all be united, my Brethren,” he concludes in rousing rhetoric, for “MUTUAL INTEREST, MUTUAL BENEFIT, AND MUTUAL RELIEF.” The Society persevered for more than 150 years, into the 1950s.
  3. Negro mutual benefit societies in Philadelphia, 1831. In a newspaper notice “To the Public,” the mutual benefit societies of Philadelphia listed their goals and financial contributions for the relief and education of poor African Americans in the city. Why would they do this? Because “many have mistaken our object, and doubted the utility of these institutions,” even accusing them of promoting “extravagance and dissipation” among their recipients. Not so, the societies insist: their funds go to the neediest among them for basic sustenance.
  4. Phoenix Society, New York City, 1833. The newly formed Phoenix Society also published its goals in a newspaper, in this case the African American Liberator. Education was its primary object, and it outlined achievable steps to enroll black children and adults in reading and writing classes, trade apprenticeships, lending libraries, lecture series, and self-improvement groups—even providing clothing to children who could not otherwise participate. Although the society soon folded for lack of funds, other societies continued similar programs in New York City.

In addition to these readings, you will find others in this Toolbox on African American organizations before emancipation. See, especially #6-8 in this Theme, and sections of Theme IV: IDENTITY and Theme V: EMANCIPATION. (8 pages.)

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