Brown Fellowship Society
Brown Fellowship Society
An elite social club and mutual-aid society founded on November 1, 1790, by five free mulattoes in Charleston, South Carolina, the Brown Fellowship Society symbolized the existence of class and color consciousness within Charleston's African-American community.
Membership in the society was not to exceed fifty persons and was limited to "free brown men of good character" and their descendants who could afford the $50 membership fee. The organization maintained a clubhouse for its monthly meetings, and traditional lore claims that no person whose skin was darker than the door of the meetinghouse would be considered for membership. Many of the society's members were skilled craftsmen who had developed significant contacts with influential white Charlestonians with whom they shared upper-class interests and values. In fact, the original founders were members of St. Philip's Episcopal Church, a predominantly white congregation. Later generations of members were associated with St. Mark's Episcopal Church, an African-American congregation with a reputation for distancing itself socially from poorer and darker-skinned black Charlestonians. This association with prominent whites was reflected in the bylaws of the organization, which prohibited the discussion of controversial religious or political subjects, such as slavery. Violations of this proscription occasionally resulted in the expulsion of the offending member.
A number of Brown Fellowship Society's members were slave owners whose treatment of their chattel property ranged from exploitation to humanitarianism. Some slaves probably benefited from paternalistic treatment by these African-American masters, but this did not prevent slaveholding members of the organization from using their wills to perpetuate the "peculiar institution" by conveying ownership of slaves to surviving members of their families.
At the same time, the Brown Fellowship Society reflected the desire of Charleston's free blacks to control important aspects of their own lives. Operating under the motto "Charity and Benevolence," the society not only provided a school for its members and their families but also subsidized the Minors' Moralist Society for the education of impoverished free black children. It paid insurance and death benefits to the widows and orphans of deceased members and oversaw the burial of dead members in a private cemetery maintained by the society. In addition, the society served as a credit union whereby members could obtain loans, at the interest rate of 20 percent, to finance home improvements, start-up costs for small businesses, or merely to pay the bills in times of financial crisis.
The organization changed its name in 1890 to the Century Fellowship Society and added a women's auxiliary (the Daughters of the Century Fellowship Society) in 1907. Although little is known of the organization's later history, it continued to operate well into the twentieth century and maintained its character as a socially exclusive institution within Charleston's African-American community. In addition, several former members, through geographical mobility or marriage, became prominent in the aristocratic circles of other cities in the United States.
Curry, Leonard P. The Free Black in Urban America, 1800–1850: The Shadow of the Dream. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
Fitchett, E. Horace. "The Traditions of the Free Negro in Charleston, South Carolina." Journal of Negro History 25 (April 1940): 139–152.
Gatewood, Willard B. Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880–1920. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.
Wikramanayake, Marina. A World in Shadow: The Free Black in Antebellum South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973.
james m. sorelle (1996)
Updated by author 2005