Free African Society (1787-1794)
By: Michael Barga
Background: Especially in the northern United States in the Eighteenth Century, groups of free blacks pooled their resources into mutual aid societies. Such groups were formed partly as a response to the exclusion practiced by whites in offering social services. For example, free blacks who became ill could not depend on churches led by whites to supply assistance. The formation of a mutual aid society created a different avenue to have these needs fulfilled. In addition, orphans and widows related to members of the societies were often offered support. The mutual aid societies also served an important cultural function in many black communities. Many had a spiritual focus, maintained a strong moral order, and facilitated discussions of identity which were helpful to those who wished to maintain a connection to their African roots in the midst of marginalization from American society.
Introduction: While some historians use the term “Free African Society” generally to describe local groups throughout the Northeastern United States up to the year 1810, the best known organization to formally take this name was located in Philadelphia. Their work was similar to many mutual aid societies with a distinguishing feature being the Free African Society’s service to the larger Philadelphian community shortly after its founding in 1787. Despite the esteemed standing of its founders and many of its members, the Free African Society faced suspicion and hatred from whites throughout its existence.
Development and Activity: The Free African Society was founded by Absalom Jones and Richard Allen as a mutual aid society independent of any particular religious affiliation yet tied to a strong sense of morality. The Articles for the society state that “no drunkard nor disorderly person be admitted as a member,” and aid can only be received out of necessity which “is not brought on them by their own imprudence”1 One moral action taken by the group involved the expelling of a man who had abandoned his family to pursue a relationship with a new woman.
In the church communities of Philadelphia, some were more segregated than others, but most blacks found themselves barred from schools, cemeteries, and receiving funds when illness or death struck the family. This did not stop many blacks in Pennsylvania’s Episcopal Church from avoiding involvement in the society, and their initial lack of enthusiasm led to a subsequently low Episcopal membership that might help explain the non-sectarian aspect of the organization approved by Episcopalian founder Richard Allen. Nonetheless, Minister Allen would later use the society to create the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in hopes to fulfill the spiritual needs of free blacks.
Instrumental in the founding of the society was Henry Stewart, who had seen the African Union Society’s work in Newport and reported back to fellow free blacks in Philadelphia. While a proposed union between the Free African Society and the Newport group was never reached, mutual respect and hospitality was expressed between their members in other ways. The division remained due to the differing goals of the group, but the contact between Free African Society, the African Union Society, and similar groups is recognized as an indicator that free blacks had a sense of greater community at that time.
The society quickly became the leader in welfare for all free blacks of Philadelphia, in addition to its spiritual and moral focus. Some former slaves first legitimized their marriages through the society, and a burial plot was leased by the society to avoid the use of unmarked graves, often the final resting place of black Philadelphians at that time. In 1790, the Free African Society worked with the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in examining the way free blacks lived in the city.
Jones and Allen were considered prominent men in the black community, and some whites honored their standing by helping with the society’s activities. The Preamble/Articles conclusion for the Free African Society recognizes William White, first bishop of the Pennsylvania Episcopal Church, in a positive light. Also, in applying for a grant that would allot land for the burial of blacks, a number of whites signed the petition, including one of Philadelphia’s doctors, Benjamin Rush. It is noted that Rush and those who signed did not necessarily express a sentiment of equality and likely saw blacks at least as foreigners.
In 1793, Dr. Rush would become very well known as one of the many doctors who mistakenly believed blacks were immune to yellow fever. Based on this belief, the mayor of Philadelphia called upon the Free African Society to organize nurses who could care for the sick and bury the dead when the epidemic struck that year. Of those who came forward, many would fall ill, including Richard Allen who later recovered. Some friends of Allen and Jones who put themselves in harm’s way were not as fortunate. Still, black nurses and caretakers served through the duration of the epidemic despite their lack of immunity to the illness.
Some citizens saw blacks in a more favorable light in the midst of their service, but unfortunately an active participant in Philadelphia politics at the time, Matthew Carey, was not one of them. He wrote a short history of the episode and presented Allen, Jones, and a few others as exceptions to the generally poor and exploitive service given to yellow fever victims by the black community. While the mayor had praised those blacks who gave their care and lives during the time of crisis, the negative effect on public opinion of the publication was significant.
In fact, the repudiation of Carey’s assertions became a focal issue for the Free African Society. Jones and Allen wrote a response and created a pamphlet which included acknowledgements of black contributions during the yellow fever episode. The success of the pair’s efforts is unknown, although the cost to the Free African Society of the publication and the medical care during the crisis itself is more evident. The efforts of blacks to serve as nurses and in other capacities did not have a lot of financial support outside the society, and the Free African Society was disbanded by the end of 1794 for their failure to handle overwhelming debts.
The framework of the Free African Society was reproduced with success in New York in the creation of groups like the Clarkson, Wilberforce, and Woolman Societies. The church created by Allen continued to flourish as a faith community and provider of social welfare to its members. As an entity in black cultural history the society also continued to be significant; E. Franklin Frazier cited the society’s morally stringent culture as “the beginnings of a real family tradition among Negroes.”2
Conclusion: The Free African Society’s legacy is acknowledged in Philadelphia at the site of the original Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church as “the forerunner of the first African-American churches in this city.”3 The contributions of the group during the yellow fever outbreak in 1793, as well as the racially charged dialogue that followed, acknowledge both the willingness of free blacks to serve the larger community and the difficulty in assuaging bigoted fears and suspicions at that time. Finally, the Free African Society provided the valuable social services of looking after the sick, the poor, the dead, the widowed, and the orphaned of their marginalized membership.
1. “Preamble (1778) and Articles of the Free African Society, 1787,” paragraphs 2-3, reprinted by Explore PA History at http://explorepahistory.com/odocument.php?docId=1-4-34
2. “The Negro Family” by E. Franklin Frazier, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 140, Nov., 1928:45.
3. “Free African Society [New Nation] Historical Marker” at http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-27B
Negro Thought in America 1880-1915 by August Meier. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1963.
“Early Black Benevolent Societies, 1780-1839” by Robert L. Harris, Jr. The Massachusetts Review 20(3), Autumn, 1979.
“The Beginnings of Insurance Enterprise among Negroes” by James B. Browning. The Journal of Negro History 22(4), Oct., 1937.
“Rhetoric and Identity in Absalom Jones and Richard Allen’s Narrative of the Proceedings of Black People, during the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia” by Jacqueline Bacon. The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 125(1/2), Jan.-Apr., 2001.
Mother Bethel A.M.E. – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother_Bethel_A.M.E._Church
For further information:
Nash, Gary B. (1988). Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Richard Allen: Apostle of Freedom. The Free African Society. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Winch, J. (1988). Philadelphia’s Black Elite: Activism, Accommodation, and the Struggle for Autonomy, 1787-1848. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.