Free Somebody Else: Black Philanthropy in the Americas

August is Black Philanthropy Month. What follows is an overview of Black Philanthropy in the Americas from the 18th and 19th centuries.

This year, you likely cooked a meal for friends or family. You’ve given to a mutual aid fund. You utilized your local sustainable facebook group whose title is also a promise, (“Everything Free [Insert Neighborhood Here]).” You’ve donated to countless GoFundMe campaigns, and perhaps you’ve sent money to those who lost income at the start of the pandemic. Maybe you’ve volunteered, or baked goods to make sure the children had gifts for the holidays. Do you consider yourself a philanthropist?

In 2011, Dr. Jacqueline Bouvier Copeland, 58, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, set out to let you know that you are. Her work seems as varied as her interests, working at the intersections of anthropology, urbanism and movement work. According to HistoryMakers.Org, she has worked with “The Philadelphia Foundation, U.S. Bank Private Client Group, Ford Foundation, McKnight Foundation, U.S. Department of HUD, PEW and Global Fund for Women. In 2006, she founded Copeland Carson & Associates, an international community investment practice, specializing in support to nonprofits, foundations, and social entrepreneurs. In 2008, Copeland also conducted the initial research and program design for the My Brothers Keeper project, later adopted by the Obama Administration and Foundation as a signature initiative.”

After working as a cultural anthropologist, urban designer, and award-winning global social impact executive, she founded the Pan-African Women’s Philanthropy Network (PAWPNet) which birthed another idea: Black Philanthropy Month. Along with Valaida Fullwood, author of Giving Back, and Tracey Webb, creator of BlackGivesBack.com, the three women spent much of the last decade troubling popular notions of philanthropy on the national stage.

This month, the organization celebrated 9 years since its founding with a virtual conference.

“My vision for Black Philanthropy Month is for it to be widely known and celebrated just as we observe Black History Month — a month to uplift the long and rich history of Black philanthropy, give back to our communities with time and treasure, and lay the groundwork for the future,” said Webb in a recent Forbes interview.

Black Philanthropy has existed as long as* the concept of Blackness as a social identity. From the time African captives were brought to the West, mutual aid projects, a form of political participation in which people take responsibility for caring for one another, was paramount for survival. The ability to carry on, for yourself and others, was a constant reckoning.

Survival, noted theorist Saidiya Hartman says in The Anarchy of Colored Girls Assembled in a Riotous Manner, required acts of collaboration and genius. “The mutuality and creativity necessary to sustain life in the context of intermittent wages, controlled deprivation, economic exclusion, coercion, and antiblack violence often bordered on the extralegal and the criminal. Beautiful, wayward experiments entailed what W. E. B. Du Bois described as an “open rebellion” against society.”

We can understand the Haitian Revolution, the series of rebellions which bore the New World’s first Black republic, as one of the best known Black mutual aid projects. The insurrection lasted over a decade, beginning in 1791 and ending in 1804 with the establishment of an independent republic. In 1789, the Black population was divided into three parts: those who were free, those who were slaves, and those who ran away. The free population were those who had bought their freedom, or the children of French inhabitants (formally called Mulattos), of which these were about 30,000, and those who had run away were called Maroons. The enslaved populations numbered over 500,000 across the island. These groups collaborated, and overthrew the colonial government by 1798, led by Toussaint l’Overture. In 1801, his forces conquered the neighboring Spanish colony, known now as the Dominican Republic, and abolished slavery there, too.

Early Haitians understood, intimately, the ways in which their freedom was tied to those around them. The implementation and preservation of freedom from institutional slavery would always be threatened had they not.

For those living through the founding of settler colonialism, freedom was a political project and a material condition.

Hartman articulated the burden of freedom in her 1997 book Scenes of Subject, in which she illuminates the terrors and resistance which shaped Black life in the United States in the 19th century. Hartman “characterize[s] the nascent individualism of emancipation as “burdened individuality” in order to underline the double bind of freedom: being freed from slavery and free of resources, emancipated and subordinated, self possessed and indebted […] The entanglements of bondage and liberty shaped the liberal imagination of freedom, fueled the emergence and expansion of capitalism, and spawned proprietorial conceptions of the self.

Elsewhere across the Americas, emancipation, like everything else, was realized as an individual process rather than a chorus. But, many freed folk rebuked that too. This understanding of freedom, is best articulated by Toni Morrison’s oft quoted axiom: the function of freedom is to free somebody.

Whether “purchased” or “given,” many enslaved people throughout the New World toiled for years to purchase freedom for themselves, and then others. Southern freedman John Berry Meachum understood, and described the journey in his 1846 book An Address to All the Colored Citizens of the United States:

By working in a saltpetre cave I earned enough to purchase my freedom.

Still I was not satisfied, for I had left my father in old Virginia and he was a slave. It seemed to me, at times, though I was seven hundred miles from him, that I held conversation with him, for he was near my heart. However this did not stop here, for industry will do a great deal. In a short time I went to Virginia and bought my father and paid one hundred pounds for him, Virginia money. It was a joyful meeting when we met together, for we had been apart a long time. . . This was in the year 1811, when I was about twenty-one years old. My father and myself then earned enough to pay our expenses on the way, and putting our knapsacks on our backs walked seven hundred miles to Hardin county, Kentucky. Here the old man met his wife and all his children, who had been there several years. Oh there was joy!

In a short time, my mother and all her children received their liberty, of their good old master. My father and his family settled in Harrison county, Indiana.

Being a carpenter and cooper I soon obtained business and purchased my wife and children. Since that period I have purchased about twenty slaves, most of whom paid back the greatest part of the money, and some paid all.

Formal Black mutual aid societies began popping up across the United States and Caribbean in the late 18th century and persisted for long after; they were a revolution in minor key. Created in opposition to the legal and extralegal control and domination of the free black population, networked kinship was an important part of Black life.

Richard Allen, a free Philadelphian minister, writer and educator, was an early Black philanthropist who helped to found the Free African Society.

“Originally envisioned as a religious society by the ex-slaves Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, the Free African Society quickly developed into a nondenominational organization that provided sick benefits to its members, maintained marriage records, and established the first African-American cemetery. After the withdrawal of Allen, the group also established the first African-American church in Philadelphia.

“During Philadelphia’s yellow fever epidemic in 1793, for example, Jones and Allen proposed that serving as nurses and gravediggers would demonstrate [B]lack moral superiority, while other mutual aid societies argued that education would prove [B]lack equality, and they organized schools to this end. The seeming ubiquity with which such groups paraded through the streets suggests that members believed their visibility would counter negative characterizations; this was self-conscious self-representation at its most literal. (Encyclopedia)

These groups could be found across the New World.

“In nineteenth-century Cuba, free [B]lacks established cabildos, or mutual aid societies that prioritized traditional African religious customs. These groups eventually evolved into sociedades mutuo socorro y recreo (society of mutual help and recreation), which focused more on economic independence and education as Afro-Cubans sought equality within the larger Cuban society. This evolution led to the formation of the Martí-Maceo Society in the United States in 1900; similar processes of cultural negotiation probably prompted the first African-American mutual aid societies as well.” (Encyclopedia)

The white supremacist order dictated that Black women’s bodies be surveilled, regulated, and routinely disciplined, in order to maintain the established socio-economic hierarchy. Black women found themselves vulnerable to various mechanisms of domination during and after captivity, but still “found ways to carve out an alternate space for themselves that challenged scripts of race and gender.”

Freed women sought comfort from the personal pain slavery inflicted and the economic hardships they faced as a result of their gender and race through community networks that stemmed from the African American church. Through these networks, women developed a unique culture and community that provided support in times of crisis, and emotional closeness. Black women relied on extended kinship institutions such as the church and mutual aid and benevolent societies, which inculcated the doctrine of self-help and solidarity.

Female benevolent societies furthermore enabled African American women to form an independent power base within their communities. In Savannah-Chatham County, for example, women assumed leadership positions in most female benevolent societies. Based upon Elsa Barkley Brown’s paradigm of female leadership, African American women led and served as community influentials, community activists, and as elite leaders. Women categorized as community influentials held secondary positions within the associations such as secretary and treasurer. Community activists, on the other hand, were women who served as president and vice-president and who were chosen to lead at least twice. Similarly, the elite consisted of women elected to primary positions more than three times.3 Between 1865 and 1885, 922 persons served as officers in Savannah’s African American organizations. Women comprised twenty-eight percent of the officers. Ninety-six percent of the 922 officers were ex-slaves.

The number of landowning African American women is significant. Savannah’s rural-urban economy and the coterminous development of a plantation and industrial economy, placed African American men and women in a comparatively good position to accumulate real estate and personal property.

Kinship played an instrumental role in the community network of African American women. In some instances, landed kin helped landless family members acquire land. Illustrative of this is the Sheftall family who helped family members acquire land by selling them portions of their property.

Therefore, through an “internal land trade,” women gained access to small parcels of land which they equated with economic and personal independence.

#BlackPhilanthropy Part 1: This is part one of a two-part series about the histories and futures of Black philanthropy in the Americas. We found ourselves thinking about the frame through which we view philanthropy, Blackness, mutuality, and freedom. We are always working to deepen our understanding of the contexts through which our ancestors lived and the ways they transformed the world around them to get by.

Stay tuned for our next edition, which will examine Black philanthropy from the early 20th century through today.

THE BOSTON UJIMA PROJECT is organizing neighbors, workers, business owners and investors to create a new community controlled economy in Boston.

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