The Free African Society
The Free African Society, which was located at 6th and Market streets, was the first mutual aid society for free blacks. While it provided benefits for the sick, the Society originally started in reaction to the lack of Black churches in the country. Richard Allen, an African-American preacher gained popularity making speeches throughout Philadelphia. He preached that God saw all men as equal and, therefore, all freemen deserve the same treatment as Whites.
He became so well known that St. George Methodist Church invited him to be a preacher. Black community members started to flood in to hear his sermons. Allen, along with other Black men in the church, discussed creating their own church to accommodate the growing number of African-Americans. One day, while he and fellow freeman Absalom Jones were on their knees praying, the church announced that the Blacks must sit elsewhere since they were segregating the church. Jones said that he would finish his prayer and then never trouble them again. Once he was done he left the church and the rest of the African-American community left with him. A few months later, on April 12, 1787, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones founded the Free African Society.
The Society was “formed without regard to religious tenets, provided the persons lived an orderly and sober life, in order to support one another in sickness and for the benefit of their widows and fatherless children,” according to the Society’s preamble. Charles Coleman said the group also was an “instrument of protest and a source of relief,” for the members. In order to accomplish this mission, members, who were all male, paid one shilling a month. If a member died, this money went to his widow and provided for his child’s education. If one of the men fell ill, the group helped cover his expenses and take care of him. The sick man was excused from his dues and the other members would increase the amount they paid at each meeting. Members also benefitted from the business connections that they made with the other free Black men.
The Free African Society took measures to make sure all members were moral as well. They would only provide aid to those who had not brought the time of need on themselves. For example, people could not receive aid after being fired for being a drunkard. One member was kicked out of the Society after he left his wife for another woman.
The freemen also took care of those who were not part of the organization. During the Yellow Fever outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793, Dr. Benjamin Rush claimed that Blacks were immune to the infection. As a result, many African-Americans, including the Free African Society members, helped to care for the sick. The caregivers made a huge contribution to the City by taking care of people and burying the dead. Some, but not all, stopped nursing the sick when Rush’s theory proved incorrect. A pamphlet, called “A Short Account of the Malignant Fever”, maintained that many Blacks stole while they were nurses. Allen and Jones published a book with the rebuttal that many White nurses profiteered. Jones and Allen fired back stating how little the Blacks earned. In fact, the Society lost money and went bankrupt in 1794 due to their assistance during the outbreak.
The Free African Society spawned two churches. In 1794, it founded the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. The church was planned in the home of James Dexter’s near what is now the National Constitution Center. Also in 1794, Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Allen left the Society because of the nondenominational religious meetings, which started with fifteen minutes of silence. This is consistent with a Quaker meeting. Richard Allen, however, was Methodist and preferred more outspoken displays of religion. Both churches still stand today even though the Free African Society no longer exists. In fact, Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church still sits at this site making it the oldest piece of land continuously owned by African Americans.
- Douglass, William. Annals of the first African church, in the United States of America, now styled the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, Philadelphia : in its connection with the early struggles of the colored people to improve their condition, with the co-operation of the Friends, and other philanthropists : partly derived from the minutes of a beneficial society, established by Absalom Jones, Richard Allen and others, in 1787, and partly from the minutes of the aforesaid church. Philadelphia : King & Baird, Printers, 1862.
- Jones, Absalom and Richard Allen. A narrative of the proceedings of the black people during the late awful calamity in Philadelphia in the year 1793, and a refutation of some censures thrown upon them in some late publications. [Philadelphia, Pa.] : Independence National Historical Park, 1993.