In 1860, Maryland had a population of 83,922 “free people of color, ” the largest number of them residing in Baltimore. The city's free blacks had started to create numerous associations to address their myriad interests and needs in the early nineteenth century. At times, the programs and activities initiated by Baltimore's free African Americans also involved the city's slave population. Whites often perceived this interaction between slaves and free African Americans as a threat to the institution of slavery and enacted restrictive laws to limit the formation of black associations. Despite these repressive efforts, black associations blossomed in Baltimore.
As early as 1835 the city's free black population operated more than thirty mutual aid societies, each boasting a membership of 35 to 150 persons. The societies, some secret in nature, incorporated the concept of extended kinship while providing financial assistance, social programs, and various activities. The Baltimore Bethel Benevolent Society of the Young Men of Color, founded in 1821, was the first society of its kind in the city. Other early societies included the African Friendship Benevolent Society for Social Relief, Star in the East Association, Daughters of Jerusalem Association, and the Masonic Order-Friendship Lodge No. 6.
The majority of Baltimore's black societies had open membership policies; but some groups had specific requirements based on gender or occupation. The Baltimore's Caulkers' Association, founded in 1838 as a trade union and mutual aid society, for example, organized black shipyard workers and used its influence to become the collective bargaining agent with the city's shipyard owners. Funds accrued by Baltimore's black societies were largely deposited in the two savings banks that free African Americans had established by the 1840s.
The steady increase in the number of free African Americans and the proliferation of black societies troubled whites, who responded with restrictive legal measures. In 1842, the state of Maryland passed a law making the membership of free African Americans in secret societies a felony. The law imposed a fine of no less than fifty dollars on blacks and whites for attempting to form them or for trying to induce African Americans to join them. Half the fine was paid to the informer and the other half was placed in the state's coffers. Convicted offenders who failed to pay their fines faced the prospect of being sold for a term of service sufficient to pay the fine. In case of a second offence, the law stipulated that individuals be sold into slavery out of state or given fifty-nine lashes on the back.
Many of Baltimore's residents objected to the passage of the 1842 law, but they did not have enough votes in the Maryland General Assembly to defeat the bill. In 1845, based on the testimony of highly respected white citizens, a bill to modify the 1842 law passed the Maryland Senate. Proponents of the modification argued that the 1842 law prevented many honest and industrious African Americans from forming beneficial societies for the relief of the destitute members of their race, a responsibility that could fall upon the state if African Americans did not assume it. After considerable debate in both houses of the assembly, the 1845 bill passed, ruling that free African Americans of good character who paid at least five dollars in taxes could form charitable societies with written permission from the mayor of Baltimore. Permits were issued annually, with the provision that all black association meetings were subject to police inspection. Yet an 1846 Maryland Act prohibited the incorporation of black
Baltimore: Civic, Literary, and Mutual Aid Associations