In a 1944 article in the American Historical Review, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger traced the history of American voluntary organizations. Pointing to a profusion of associations that penetrated “nearly every aspect of American life, ” Schlesinger concluded that America was “a Nation of Joiners” (“Biography of a Nation of Joiners, ” vol. L, no. 1 [October 1944]: 1-25). While Schlesinger's study focussed on organizations with white memberships, his conclusion applies equally to African Americans.
Throughout American history, African Americans have established a multitude of religious, professional, business, political, recreational, educational, secret, social, cultural, and mutual aid associations. Frequently ignored by historians, these voluntary organizations served a variety of purposes and pursued diverse goals. Yet all of them provided important services to the black community and played a crucial role in the struggle for freedom, racial advancement, and equality.
Many black associations were the product of the racism that resulted in the exclusion of African Americans from the majority of the nation's white-controlled associations. In response, African Americans founded organizations that paralleled those of their white counterparts. Black medical practitioners, for example, launched the National Medical Association because the American Medical Association excluded them from membership. During the second half of the twentieth century, many of these black-initiated associations ceased to exist when white-dominated organizations started to desegregate and open their ranks to black members. While African Americans joined these previously all-white organizations, they often established black caucuses to assure the proper representation of their interests within the larger associations.
Although African Americans established numerous associations in response to racism, discrimination, and segregation, other organizations were the product of the black community's expression of racial solidarity and an assertion of self-determination. Providing services and programs that addressed the particular needs of the race in slavery and freedom, these associations furnished African Americans with opportunities for companionship, professional networking, intellectual stimulation, and educational advancement, as well as artistic, literary, and spiritual expression. Moreover, many of the organizations served as outlets for social, economic, religious, and political discussions and often generated activism and reform. Indeed, the associations created a racially autonomous world that shielded African Americans from racial abuse and humiliation, while enabling them to serve the needs of the black community with honor, dignity, and respect.
In addition to racially exclusive associations, many organizations united black and white members in the struggle to end slavery, segregation, and discrimination. Beginning in the first half of the nineteenth century, abolitionist societies, such as the American Anti-Slavery Society, attracted black and white members in the fight against slavery. Following the Civil War, joint organizational efforts on behalf of African Americans continued, as blacks and whites worked together in various freedmen's aid associations. By the early twentieth century, emerging civil rights organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, provided yet another forum for interracial cooperation. The number of racially inclusive organizations further increased during and after World War II, when numerous local and state governments appointed interracial committees. Sparked by the eruption of urban race riots as well as wartime and cold war concerns about America's image abroad, these government agencies studied racial conditions and formulated policies to end discrimination and segregation. Finally, at the height of the postwar civil rights movement, large numbers of blacks and whites