The Rise and Influence of the New York African Society for Mutual Relief, 1808-1865
The history of the African societies of New York City shows that early African aid associations performed critical social functions in the black communities of Manhattan and Brooklyn.(2) The ephemeral New York African Society (ca. 1784) established the tradition of African-American cooperative institutions and its influence was a motivating factor in the formation of the New York African Society for Mutual Relief (NYASMR). The NYASMR quickly became black New York's leading secular association and it helped to guide the organizational life of the black communities of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Partly because of the African Society for Mutual Relief's success, black people turned to aid associations to meet specific charitable, social, and educational needs.
On 6 June 1808, a meeting of black men at the Rose Street Academy in Manhattan gave rise to the New York African Society for Mutual Relief. In the preceding months, a group of black men -- led by William Hamilton and William Miller -- began "devising means to administer assistance to those of their friends, whom the vicissitudes of time or the freaks of fortune might reduce to want." Several sessions were held to plan the organization's structure, and the original agreements limited membership to mechanics of color. That focus was intended to avoid the fate of the earlier African society which was in the process of folding under financial strain. "But after more mature deliberation, the gentleman concluded, that to open the door for the admission of all moral characters of color, would be to lay a good foundation for the improvement of morals among us," wrote an officer.(3)
On June 6, the constitution was adopted and the officers were elected. William Hamilton was to be president, John Teasman was vice-president, Daniel Berry was named treasurer, Henry Sipkins was secretary and Adam Carman his assistant, while Daniel Brownhill, Adam Ray, James McEwen, Henry Rouse, Samuel Charley, Richard Tankard, Samuel Clause, Benjamin Slighter, and Peter Vogelsang served on the first Standing Committee. With a clear sense of the uncertain future of black people in the Northern states, they declared:
We the undersigned subscribers, duly reflecting upon the various vicissitudes of life, to which mankind are continually exposed, and stimulated by the desire of improving our condition, do conclude that the most efficient method of securing ourselves from the extreme exigencies to which we are liable to be reduced is by uniting ourselves in a body, for the purpose of raising a fund for the relief of its members.
The first act of the constitution stated that they would thereafter be "distinguished by the name of the `New York African Society for Mutual Relief'" and membership was open to men of "good moral character."(4)
The African Society for Mutual Relief became the leading association in black Manhattan. Ninety-seven men were initiated into the NYASMR in its first year. While promising to meet monthly, pay dues, and assist members, their widows, and children when in need, these men made the society more than a self-help organization.
The members quickly assumed a public role. In January 1809, the members sent a petition for incorporation to the State Legislature. "To strengthen our compact, to consolidate our interest, and to raise us to the dignity of a body politic," is how secretary Peter Vogelsang described the effort. They put together all the necessary paper work and twice had Mayor DeWitt Clinton carry their petition to Albany. Clinton "employed his eloquence, till both houses went into a decision in your favor," Teasman reported to the members. On 23 March 1810 the New York African Society for Mutual Relief was incorporated by an act of the Legislature. Three weeks later, when the news arrived by stage, the members determined that it was worth celebrating. They wanted to parade, but a few white men asked to meet with them to express their fear that "the authorities would be entirely powerless to protect you on the streets, and you would be torn in pieces by howling mobs. …