During the nineteenth century, the landscape of early America flourished with service organizations committed to providing a myriad of social, economic, religious, and educational services to underprivileged and immigrant Americans. These beneficial organizations were autonomously controlled by fraternal, literary, and religious organizations; Americans knew them as mutual aid societies, literary societies, beneficial societies, and fraternal lodges. Armed with doctrines of self-reliance, reciprocal giving, and moral respectability they provided paying members with fellowship, a...
During the nineteenth century, the landscape of early America flourished with service organizations committed to providing a myriad of social, economic, religious, and educational services to underprivileged and immigrant Americans. These beneficial organizations were autonomously controlled by fraternal, literary, and religious organizations; Americans knew them as mutual aid societies, literary societies, beneficial societies, and fraternal lodges. Armed with doctrines of self-reliance, reciprocal giving, and moral respectability they provided paying members with fellowship, a locus of community, and standards of living usually afforded only to upper-class Americans. Members of these organizations paid annual and monthly dues; in turn, they received educational services and opportunities, health care, financial assistance, low-interest loans, burial insurance, and family counseling. This was not charity but community uplift; such beneficial societies were controlled by members and were very popular among nineteenth-century African Americans. The federal government itself provided little federal assistance for citizens; moreover, available federal programs excluded African Americans. In his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), Frederick Douglass describes his membership in the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society: I had, on the Eastern Shore, been only a teacher, when in the company of other slaves, but now there were colored persons who could instruct me. Many of the young calkers [sic] … had high notions about mental improvement. … The free ones … organized what they called the “East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society.” … I was admitted, and was, several times, assigned a prominent part in its debates. (p. 319) Douglass mentions the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society again in his third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, 1892), wherein he acknowledges a debt of gratitude owed to the members of the society. Following his expressions of gratitude Douglass provides a rhetorical defense of his freedom, which alludes to the training in classical rhetoric he received while a member of that society. In fact, Douglass's membership there provided his only opportunity for formal education among peers. The East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society left few records. Douglass tells us its members were primarily free African Americans. Such organizations were alternately known as debating clubs, reading rooms, and literary societies. They attracted intellectual men and women by providing oratorical training, required reading lists, and educational lectures. Topics for research and debate generally included the literature of classic antiquity, science and astronomy, wisdom literature (specifically the moral, philosophical, and religious texts of the Bible), mathematics, and American history. Questions of liberty and freedom in the context of American slavery were passionately debated. In addition to engaging in research and debate, members wrote and analyzed literature and submitted exceptional pieces for publication in African American newspapers. Literary societies produced a number of African American intellectuals in addition to Frederick Douglass, notably, Maria W. Stewart and Francis Ellen Watkins Harper. The newspaper run by the antislavery movement leader William Lloyd Garrison, the Liberator, featured a listing of speakers who addressed African Americans at a New York literary society that was similar to the organization joined by Douglass. A sampling of speakers from 1836 included the lawyer and abolitionist Wendell Phillips; the mathematician and astronomer Nathaniel Bowditch; and the Harvard-educated antislavery leader and senator Charles Sumner. Benefit societies were integral to African American uplift prior to the twentieth century. The existence of these societies demonstrates the rigorous intellectual discipline of nineteenth-century African Americans and discloses a crucial aspect of Frederick Douglass's early education. See also Black Uplift; Douglass, Frederick; Education; Life and Times of Frederick Douglass; and My Bondage and My Freedom.
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