Mutual Aid Societies

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Mutual Aid Societies

"Badly off, and in want, indeed!" exclaims the black Philadelphian Charles Ellis in Frank J. Webb's 1857 novel The Garies and Their Friends. "We not only support our own poor, but assist the whites to support theirs!" Such a sentiment was echoed in the nineteenth-century black press, which repeatedly cited statistics demonstrating that taxes paid by African Americans consistently exceeded public assistance awarded "their" poor. Because popular representation often figured freed blacks as an indigent burden on the government, black communities took great pride in their self-reliance. By 1857, this had been primarily accomplished through the establishment of mutual aid societies, which organized the free black populations in cities from Newport, Rhode Island, to New Orleans, Louisiana. Such groups promoted African-American political interests by supporting each other financially while constructing a sense of kinship. Through monthly membership dues, mutual aid societies dispensed sick benefits and funeral benefits while also serving as a network for jobs; because the earliest groups were organized by men, most also provided support for the widows and orphans of their members. However, women soon established both auxiliaries to existing societies and societies of their own, and by the twentieth century women surpassed men in membership.

It has generally been accepted that the first of these societies was the Free African Society of Philadelphia. Originally envisioned as a religious society by the ex-slaves Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, the Free African Society quickly developed into a nondenominational organization that provided sick benefits to its members, maintained marriage records, and established the first African-American cemetery. After the withdrawal of Allen, the group also established the first African-American church in Philadelphia. Despite the significance of the Free African Society, its founding date is debated. Though an article in The Colored American on August 19, 1837, reports that "fifty-five" mutual aid societies had incorporated in Philadelphia by that year, most official documentation has yet to be uncovered and what scholars do know has primarily been gleaned from references to such groups in the press. Thus, while many date the formation of the Free African Society at 1787, others, such as Leonard P. Curry, place its establishment in 1778, a date confirmed by an article in the Christian Recorder from April 3, 1884. Similarly, though it has been suggested that such associations had been instituted in Newport as early as 1770, documentation of that city's Free African Union Society is scarce until 1780.

The inspiration for such societies has also been debated. While some believe that black mutual aid societies were modeled on white benevolent societies, others argue that they find their roots in the West African concept of Sou-Sou. Taken from the Yoruba word esusu, the Sou-Sou is a cooperative arrangement that, in addition to providing for sick members, often served as a bank (banks modeled on the Sou-Sou, such as the Woman's Responsive Sou-Sou Bank of Trinidad, still exist in Africa and the Caribbean today). An Afro-Cuban mutual aid society, the stillextant Martí-Maceo Society of Florida, may provide a clue in this debate. In nineteenth-century Cuba, free blacks established cabildos, or mutual aid societies that prioritized traditional African religious customs. These groups eventually evolved into sociedades mutuo socorro y recreo (society of mutual help and recreation), which focused more on economic independence and education as Afro-Cubans sought equality within the larger Cuban society. This evolution led to the formation of the Martí-Maceo Society in the United States in 1900; similar processes of cultural negotiation probably prompted the first African-American mutual aid societies as well.

While mutual aid societies were the result of material necessity, they also responded to a desire to shape a distinctly African-American identity. The Free African Society was established as a reaction to what its founders called "the irreligious and uncivilized state" in which their neighbors lived. Well into the twentieth century, mutual aid societies stressed the virtue and the civic duty of their members. If these societies scrutinized the behavior of their members, it was due to an awareness of being scrutinized from without. Thus, mutual aid societies became an exercise in self-representation. During Philadelphia's yellow fever epidemic in 1793, for example, Jones and Allen proposed that serving as nurses and gravediggers would demonstrate black moral superiority, while other mutual aid societies argued that education would prove black equality, and they organized schools to this end. The seeming ubiquity with which such groups paraded through the streets suggests that members believed their visibility would counter negative characterizations; this was self-conscious self-representation at its most literal. Noticed they were, though not always positively, as an article from The Colored American from April 29, 1837, revealed when it charged the New York Times with willfully misrepresenting an anniversary celebration of the Clarkson Benevolent Society as a mob protesting the trial of a fugitive slave.

But the white press was not the only opponent of mutual aid societies. Fearing the interaction between slaves and free blacks, Maryland passed a law in 1842 that charged membership in mutual aid societies as a felony, and Charleston's Free Dark Men of Color were shut down by whites fearful of slave insurrections in the 1820s. It is no surprise that antebellum whites found black mutual aid societies threatening, as many societies were active in abolition efforts. As the nineteenth century progressed into the twentieth, mutual aid societies broadened their political scope. The Colored Knights of Pythias were some of the most ardent members of the Florida movement to re-gain blacks' right to vote after World War I. Female mutual aid societies fought for women's rights and suffrage. Others lobbied for antilynching legislation. With increased membership, mutual aid societies could also fund larger ventures. The United Order of True Reformers encouraged black entrepreneurship through the institution of the True Reformers' Savings Bank of Richmond, Virginia, while also establishing a hotel, newspaper, and home for the elderly. Other mutual aid societies funded hospitals. And the death benefits so important to early groups eventually grew into life insurance companies, such as the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, which still exists today.

Despite the fact that mutual aid societies played a significant role in African-American life for well over 150 years, few organizations still exist today. Some scholars claim that new forms of entertainment diminished the demand for such organizations, while others point to commercial insurance companies. The Great Depression irreparably weakened mutual aid societies, as it left many members unable to pay dues. Historian David Beito locates the demise of these societies in the modern welfare state, claiming that government-sponsored worker's compensation and widow's benefits left mutual aid societies obsolete. "Universal" as Beito claims these benefits were, however, the Social Security Act Amendment of 1935 effectively excluded many African Americans by denying coverage to personal servants, domestics, and casual and agricultural workers.

Regardless, such legislation did anticipate the eventual dissolution of mutual aid societies. Their legacy, however, can be found in the civil rights movement and even in organizations that exist in the twenty-first century, from 100 Black Men of America, which seeks to dispel negative representations of the black man in society through community service, to the Cultural Wellness Center of Minneapolis, which provides culturally sensitive medical care to African-American patients. The history of African-American mutual aid societies should serve as a source of empowerment and pride. Yet one need be cautious in wishing for their return, as they represent the dire necessity left by a state that refused to fulfill its responsibilities toward all of its citizens equally, a process still evolving today.

See also Christian Denominations, Independent; Fraternal Orders; Fraternities, U.S.; Sororities, U.S.


Beito, David. From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 18901967. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Curry, Leonard P. The Free Black in Urban America, 18001850: The Shadow of the Dream. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Nash, Gary B. Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia's Black Community, 17201840. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Ortiz, Paul. Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

robina khalid (2005)