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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Community

Member certificate of John Matthus, African Friendly Society, 5 October 1808
"Relieve the Distressed"
Mutual Benefit
- Free African Society, founding document, 1787
- New 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.)

Discussion questions
  1. How do the mutual benefit societies change from the earliest in 1787 to those created in the 1830s?
  2. What characteristics and challenges do the societies share?
  3. What goals are added as the societies develop?
  4. How do the societies' leaders encourage fellow African Americans to become members?
  5. Who would comprise the active membership of these societies?
  6. How do they publicize their existence and principles to the community at large? Why?
  7. What is the role of religious faith and black churches in these societies?
  8. What fears, failures, and successes are inferred by these documents?
  9. What main factor(s) may have contributed to the success or failure of a society?
  10. Compare the two New York City societies, created in 1808 and 1833. What has changed in two decades?
  11. "Guard against the enemy," warns William Hamilton in his address. Who is the "enemy?"
  12. How did the Philadelphia societies address this "enemy"?
  13. Create a chart of the societies' goals and tactics. What does the chart reveal about the lives of free blacks in the North?
  14. Compare the communal action of free blacks in the North with that of enslaved blacks on southern plantations. What similarities and differences do you find?
  15. Compare the early societies' emphasis on self-help with that promoted by Rev. Alexander Crummell after the Civil War (see The Making of African American Identity, Vol. II (Theme III: INSTITUTIONS).
  16. Compare the early societies' emphasis on character with the similar emphasis by the black urban elite during the Great Migration of the early twentieth century (see The Making of African American Identity, Vol. III (Theme II: MIGRATIONS).
  17. What evolution do you find in African American mutual benefit societies from the late 1700s to the mid 1960s?

Framing Questions
  •  How did enslaved and free African Americans construct communal identities in antebellum America?
  •  What obstacles did they confront from white people? from other African Americans?
  •  How did they respond to these obstacles?
  •  How did African Americans exercise autonomy and influence through community?

Free African Society: 3 (with introductory information)
New York African Society for Mutual Relief: 2
Philadelphia societies: 2
Phoenix Society: 1
TOTAL 8 pages
Supplemental Sites
African Americans in Antebellum Boston, from

Addresses by Prince Hall on the African [Masonic] Lodge in Massachusetts, in, from Quintard Taylor, University of Washington-Seattle

- Prince Hall, 1792 address on the principles of the black Masons
- Prince Hall, 1797 address to the African [Masonic] Lodge, Cambridge,
  Massachusetts, 1797

The Making of a Community: Free African Americans in Philadelphia, from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh African Education Society, minutes, 1832, in Slavery and the Making of America (PBS)

On Borrowed Ground: Free African-American life in Charleston, South Carolina, 1810-1861, paper by Dr. Jason Poole, Dept. of History, University of Virginia

General Resources in African American History & Literature, 1500-1865

1 W. E. B. Du Bois, The Negro Church (Atlanta University Press, 1903), p. 124.

Image: Member certificate of John Matthus, African Friendly Society, St. Thomas's Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, dated 5 October 1808, detail. Reproduced by permission of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. The Enslaved Family   2. Plantation Community   3. Religion   4. Petitions
  5. Mutual Benefit   6. The Black Press   7. Fugitives   8. Canada

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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