Photo: Peter Bours house (47 Division Street), Location of AUS as early as 1781
On November 10, 1780, the African Union Society (AUS) of Newport, Rhode Island was established. It was the first attested Black Mutual Aid Society. Former slaves, including Newport Gardner and Pompe (Zingo) Stevens, were two of the leaders in creating the AUS.
In 1787 Richard Jones and Absalom Jones founded the second attested Black Mutual Aid Society, the Free African Society of Philadelphia.
Also in that year, Prince Hall obtained a charter from the British Masons to establish in Boston the first black Masonic lodge in America.
Mutual aid and self-improvement societies were formed to assist the poor and sick and promoted self-respect by setting high moral standards for their members. They also tried to combat racism by showing whites that blacks could be good, responsible citizens.
An excerpt from Early Black Benevolent Societies (1780-1830);
“Early mutual benefit societies, like the African Union Society established in 1780 in Newport, Rhode
Island or the African Society formed in 1796 in Boston, provided proper burials, administered the wills of their members, and cared for widows and orphans. 8 In addition to concerning themselves with the financial needs of their free black members, they were also committed to the antislavery cause. These organizations linked the maintenance of a free society to abolition and the welfare of free blacks to the welfare of slaves, attacking the inconsistency of a “freedom loving” nation’s toleration of slavery. In an Essay on Freedom, one member of the African Society of Boston attacked slavery and the hypocrisy of a people who “love freedom themselves… [but who] prevent [others] from its enjoyment.. . .”
Today, Newport is home to a historically noteworthy burying ground that the African and African American community commonly called “God’s Little Acre.” This burial area on Farewell Street has been recognized as having possibly the oldest and largest surviving collection of markers of enslaved and free Africans, the earliest of whom were born in the late 1600’s.