Founded in 1808, the New York African Society for Mutual Relief (NYASMR) was the leading antebellum secular charitable and cooperative organization designed to serve the everyday needs of the free black community in Manhattan. The founders included William Hamilton and William Miller, who, with other prominent black men in the city, met at the Rose Street Academy, a school for black children in Manhattan, to begin planning the organization. The Society’s strong links to the black churches was evidenced in its membership, which included eight ministers.
Like other mutual aid societies, the NYASMR collected funds to assist the sick, widowed, and the orphaned, and to help defray burial costs. The Society also provided financial support for black schools. Membership was open to men of “good moral character,” who paid annual dues and met regularly to discuss the needs of Manhattan’s African American community.
The NYASMR operated out of a building the leaders purchased on Orange Street (now Baxter) in southern Manhattan, where it held meetings and rented out space in order to expand its budget. The building also helped the organization fulfill its abolitionist goals. A secret trap door in the building served as a gateway to freedom for slaves who had escaped from the south.
The NYASMR served as a model for the establishment of several other African American fraternal and philanthropic organizations that tended to a variety of needs and interests among black New Yorkers, including the Brooklyn African Woolman Benevolent Society, founded in 1810, and the Wilberforce Philanthropic Association established in Manhattan two years later in 1812. The Wilberforce Association was an early literary society.
African American women in the city also participated actively in benevolent work. In 1839, they formed the Abyssinian Benevolent Daughters of Esther Association in order to provide relief to the sick and unemployed. Thus, the NYASMR served as a catalyst and model for benevolent and self-help work among free blacks, many of which survived through the Civil War.