Brown Fellowship Society (1790-1945)
By: Michael Barga
Background: Mutual aid societies were maintained by blacks throughout the United States. The goal of the groups was to provide much needed benefits to their communities that whites controlled and often withheld. In the south, it was particularly difficult to sustain a black organization of any kind since assemblies of non-whites were considered dangerous. Still, some southern cities, including Charleston, SC, stratified individuals by three race descriptions: white, black, and mulatto. Those considered mulattoes were sometimes able to avoid the most severe oppressive measures carried out by whites while having to adhere in the majority of ways.
Introduction: The Brown Fellowship Society (BFS) was a response to this three-race cultural environment of Charleston and came together in 1790. Those who joined usually considered themselves mulatto, were often very successful, and the focus appeared to be more on practical benefits, in comparison to other religion-oriented mutual aid societies. It is unclear exactly how exclusive membership was in terms of complexion, but most agree that class and financial distinctions were a main consideration for admission.
Development and Activities: The five charter members of the Brown Fellowship Society, free non-whites who attended St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, created the motto “Charity and Benevolence.” The premise of its founding was to provide benefits which the white church denied them like a proper burial ground, widow and orphan care, and assistance in times of sickness. The preamble acknowledges its imitation of the Fellowship Society, a white organization which performed similar functions. Fifty dollars was the initial cost of membership, which was followed up by smaller annual fees.
While some believe the use of the terms “brown men” and “poor colored” in its preamble shows discrimination against blacks by mulattoes, there is no complexion criteria for membership mentioned. At a minimum, it is clear that underhanded involvement in the slave trade was prohibited for members. A member of seventeen years, George Logan, was removed after facilitating the sale of a free black man as a slave in 1817. Also, some free non-white members who owned slaves were known to have bought them after deciding it was the best way to secure greater freedom for these slaves. Many BFS members left great sums in their wills to slaves and their families, sometimes used to purchase their freedom.
On the other hand, history shows times when mulattoes did their best to distinguish themselves from those who had darker skin. After a thwarted slave revolt in Charleston, the Vesey Insurrection, a law was made that no more than seven blacks could assemble without the presence of a white man. The Brown Fellowship Society showed inspectors their detailed record of activities and objectives, and it was decided that the law was not intended for them.
The BFS officially banned discussion of divinity and politics, and the creation or maintenance of independent black churches was not associated with the Society. After the 1822 Vesey incident, blacks were forced to remain in segregated pews, and even if there had been attempts from BFS members to form a separate church, they would have been disallowed.
Like many societies, the BFS did have a strong ethical component in addition to mutual benefits, as shown by an off-shoot organization, the Minor’s Moralist Society. The Minor’s Moralist Society, created in 1803, hoped to enhance the welfare of indigent and orphaned colored children. It consisted of fifty patrons who supported the children’s education and general care.
While the Brown Fellowship Society had originally permitted the aid of non-members deemed worthy by the membership, the BFS treasury was allowed to support only five persons at a given time.1 The BFS was less restrictive about its burial services, although it would charge a fee to non-members who wished to use the available horse, hearse, and pall for a funeral.
In 1843, the new Humane Brotherhood was created as an organization for “free dark men” of Charleston. The discussion of its origins and its implications regarding race consciousness has been debated by historians. Some have proposed it was the culmination of an informal group that had existed for blacks in the area for some time.
The more compelling evidence suggests that the Brotherhood was created in 1843 as a response to the strong class distinctions made by the Brown Fellowship Society rather than distinctions by race. Some of the founding members of the Brotherhood were mulattoes, and the rule which set the membership maximum at fifty for BFS was not always upheld strictly. If the BFS was more color-conscious, it is likely these eligible mulatto men would have joined the Brown Fellowship Society rather than create their own organization.
The Humane Brotherhood mirrored the functions of the Brown Fellowship Society very closely. The benefits for sick or wrongfully imprisoned members were identical at $1.50/week, and both groups provided burial, widow annuities, and care for orphans. The main difference was the much higher financial status of the BFS members; their resources allowed for larger benefits to widows and non-members. In fact, a widow of the society received sixty dollars a year which was five times greater than that of a Humane Brotherhood widow.
The financial difference further emphasizes that class distinctions likely led to the creation of the Humane Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was mostly composed of young artisans, especially carpenters. Records show BFS members to be small business owners and entrepreneurs who had done well before the restrictive post-Vesey era in Charleston. In these early days, many BFS members held estates near or above the overall income average.
The Black Fellowship Society also had some diversity in membership between its founding and 1843. At least two Native Americans, one black man, and one white husband of a mulatto woman, were included in the elite group which suggests any man of substantial means who was rejected by white society was eligible. In comparison to the more severe repressive era from 1822 to the Civil War, the BFS was remarkably well-off near the turn of the 19th century but still was considered outcasts by white society.
In the Reconstruction era, the class distinctions of Brown Fellowship Society members became less evident in comparison to other blacks because of the declaration of broader power that had been made in emancipation. The BFS members maintained their elite identity by taking leadership roles in new black establishments to which their literacy and other skills naturally inclined them. The emancipation led to feelings of confusion for free-born mulattoes like Francis L. Cardoza who stated now there comes a situation so strange, so open in its implications, that the world cannot fully realize it.2 Newly free and very poor ex-slaves were numerous in comparison to mulattoes and other non-whites of higher class.
With the return of segregation and greater oppression after Reconstruction, the mulatto and black distinctions nearly disappeared. By the 1880’s, the Black Fellowship Society continued almost solely as a burial group for the black community by the 1880’s. Near its 100th anniversary, BFS was renamed the Century Fellowship Society. It continued its management of the original BFS cemetery until 1945 when the land was sold to a developing Catholic school, ending the group’s official existence.
In the 1950’s, a parking lot was paved on some of the land purchased from the Century Fellowship Society, and many believed the re-location of graves was not carefully undertaken at the time. Some even suspect that the Century Fellowship Society was coerced into selling the property, then Catholic officials outright ignored requests for more research on the grave sites. In 2001, the accusations of desecration would show validity when more graves were found under the old parking lot, including one of a black Catholic.
Conclusion: Even before more graves were discovered, descendants of the society paid tribute at the site of the old cemetery in 1990 on the 200th anniversary of the society’s founding. They recognized the value of hard-working free blacks who had built their wealth, participated in churches, and gave aid to their own in the face of segregation that restricted their education, travel, commerce, and many other areas of life. The Brown Fellowship Society stands historically as a significant contribution to the welfare of the marginalized, while simultaneously attesting to the complex, divisive, and pervasive effect of American societal oppression on people of color.
1. “Charleston’s Free Afro-American Elite: The Brown Fellowship Society and the Humane Brotherhood” by Robert L. Harris, Jr. The South Carolina Historical Magazine 82(4), October, 1981: 295.
2. The Status of the Free Negro in Charleston, South Carolina, and His Descendants in Modern Society: Statement of the Problem Fitchet The Journal of Negro History 32(4), October, 1947: 443.
“The Traditions of the Free Negro in Charleston, South Carolina” by E. Horace Fitchett. The Journal of Negro History 25(2), April, 1940.
“Brown Fellowship Society (1790–1945)” Accessed at http://www.blackpast.org/?q=aah/brown-fellowship-society-1790-1945
“The Brown Fellowship Society” Accessed at http://gullahtours.com/archives/305
Denmark Vesey – http://www.nps.gov/resources/person.htm?id=110
For More Information: Contact the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston or visit http://avery.cofc.edu/archives/Brown_Fellowship_Society.html