Established on November 1, 1790, by free persons of color in Charleston, the Brown Fellowship Society is one of the earliest institutions founded by free African Americans in South Carolina. It is only one of the myriad organizations that gave structure to the free black community and functioned primarily as a mutual aid association. During its early history, free blacks received minimal benefits from public services and had to provide for their own needs. The organization maintained its own cemetery in downtown Charleston, and if a deceased member left insufficient funds for the care of survivors, the society provided assistance. In the early antebellum years the society established a school, and as but one example of its charitable work, it supported and educated a young orphan named Daniel Payne, who later became a bishop in the AME Church. Membership was originally limited to fifty men drawn from Charleston’s free mulatto elite and their descendants. Traditionally these men were artisans, and they sometimes maintained businesses. The treasury of the organization provided a source of capital for enterprising members who speculated in real estate and made other investments. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, some members were college-educated professionals. Affiliation with the society became a marker of aristocratic status within Charleston’s black community. The society had its own building and held regular banquets and celebrations. Before the Civil War, meetings of free blacks could arouse white suspicion, so as a precautionary measure, the discussion of politics and religious subjects was banned at meetings. Some of the more prominent surnames on its membership rolls were Holloway, DeReef, Kinloch, Mitchell, Weston, Mushington, and McKinlay. Although the benevolent function of the Brown Fellowship Society was supplanted largely by private insurance and equal access to public services, it continued as a social and burial society into the 1990s.
Drago, Edmund L. Initiative, Paternalism, and Race Relations: Charleston’s Avery Normal Institute. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.
Fitchett, Horace. “The Free Negro in Charleston, South Carolina.” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1950.
Gatewood, Willard. Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880–1920. Bloom- ington: Indiana University Press, 1990.
Harris, Robert L., Jr. “Charleston’s Free Afro-American Elite: The Brown Fellowship Society and the Humane Brotherhood.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 82 (October 1981): 289–310.
Wikramanayake, Marina. A World in Shadow: The Free Black in Antebellum South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973.