Photo: Mother Bethel AME Church & Richard Allen Museum
t’s difficult to say how Black businesses would have developed, had there never been a Free African Society. Shortly before the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the Free African Society (FAS) was formed in Philadelphia as a mutual aid society, expressly for “free Africans and their descendants,” in Philadelphia. As the first Black mutual aid society in Philadelphia, FAS cared for orphans and widows, the sick and unemployed– without government assistance– and set the stage for the earliest Black banks, insurance and real estate firms. FAS is a critical piece of Black business history that shouldn’t be forgotten.
The roots of FAS, naturally, go back to racism. Absalom Jones and Richard Allen were Methodist ministers who left the St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church because Blacks were, even in the “house of God,” viciously segregated. FAS was formed as a religious organization and mutual aid society, in direct response. FAS helped former slaves first legitimize their marriages and helped Black people gain dignity in death: they leased a burial plot so that Black people would no longer be placed in unmarked graves. FAS would go on to build their own house of worship, St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, in 1794.
FAS played a critical role in delivering health care to Philadelphians of all races. During the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, Black nurses took a leading role in the city. FAS also a strong emphasis on educating Black children. By 1837, in fact, 10 private schools for Black children were operating in Philadelphia. FAS also taught principles of personal finance and saving, which laid the groundwork for banks in the Black community. Further, the emphasis of mutual aid naturally led to the rise of Black owned insurance companies. All of the amazing activities of FAS were funded primarily by membership dues: Black people were asked to pay one shilling a month to make sure that the community could service its own needs.
Absalom Jones and Richard Allen were victims of racism, for sure. Rather than complain to their peers and beg the racist Methodist church for “inclusion,” however, they asked their people to put their money together, so that they could build their own. Allen, Jones and other leaders had a clear vision but it took the people trusting each other enough to put their money together to make it work. FAS was actually proceeded by the Newport, Rhode Island Free African Union Society and they should be honored as pioneers. FAS built on their work with a scope and reach that is today still a wonder.