"The Guardian Angel of Africa": A Financial History of the New York African Society for Mutual Relief, 1808-1945

Article excerpt

"The New York African Society, for mutual relief,...has been in existence over a hundred years in New York City...although it has not increased its membership in recent years, this society has become, I understand, comparatively wealthy as a result of its earlier investments," wrote Booker T. Washington in 1909.(2) The income of the African Society in its early years is something of a mystery, but its bank and real estate holdings suggest prosperity. An 1867 fire destroyed the treasury records, and subsequent attempts to reconstruct its history did not recover much information about the society's ante-bellum finances. What is clear is that the earliest members saw their fiscal success as evidence of social uplift, establishing a strikingly different legacy than their post-bellum counterparts who regularly published financial statements but did little else. Paradoxically, if the ante-bellum men held fiscal success as the foundation for their political work, the post-bellum initiates viewed politics as a threat to a primarily financial relationship. After the Civil War, the members proved far better at increasing the society's wealth than increasing its rolls. From the 1880s to 1945, the African Society's net worth increased every year-save those of the Great Depression-but recruitment was failing partly because members voted to cap intake in order to limit their liabilities and managerial concems and partly because the organization's wealth gave them a reason to be more selective and an incentive to raise the cost of initiation. As the assets grew, many members began to view their certificates of membership as corporate stock entitling them to shares of the society's wealth. The dilernma of that stance was immediate: every new initiate reduced the value of their memberships, but if initiation fees and dues were raised to stabilize their investments those costs alone would prohibit intake. For decades, the African Society's members struggled to sustain the organization's body while consuming its flesh. The problem of membership was settled in the 1940s only with the liquidation of the African Society's holdings and its dissolution along with its affiliate organizations.

At its first official meeting on June 6, 1808, the founders imposed financial order upon their political and social union. Daniel Berry, a Manhattan tobacconist, was elected treasurer, and procedures for the collection, investment, and distribution of funds were adopted. William Hamilton, the charter president, was the likely author of the treasury regulations, and he was clearly behind their formalization over the next two decades. Any two officers could withdraw funds, a simple arrangement that permitted the members and officers to dedicate their time to organizing the local black community. The initiates had agreed to raise themselves and their neighbors through individual and group efforts while Mutual Relief swore to defend and protect them and their families in times of crisis. The officers needed a liquid treasury to meet the organization's balance of individual uplift and community action. Almost a hundred men were added to the roll in the first year, and the treasury regulations evolved in reaction to and anticipation of the challenges of running a large and multifaceted organization. The goal of keeping fiscal matters from interfering with the commitment to moral reform was paramount.

The trust implicit in this method was also a danger. "When in the full tide of prosperity, our hearts exulting in the success of our enterprise...foul treachery, with its baleful effects intruded," recalled Secretary Peter Vogelsang. In October 1812, Daniel Berry, "in whose honesty we confided-deceived, and at one fell swoop, robbed us of our funds." Berry embezzled five hundred dollars and threw the African Society into chaos. Hamilton placed John Teasman, a three-term vice president, in charge of the society's property and cash in order to calm fears and to save its small meeting hall from foreclosure. …