It’s Black History Month, and I must confess a “history crush” on both Absalom Jones and Richard Allen who were co-founders of the Free African Society, an early mutual aid society. I admire their vision and courage. They triumphed over slavery, and their lifetime of accomplishments speaks volumes about how brilliant, charismatic, tenacious, self-determined and generous they were.
I first came to know of Richard Allen as a young girl, since my family were generations-old members of Gaston Chapel AME Church. Richard founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, America’s first independent Black church denomination, when he established Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia, PA in 1794. Later in life, I learned of Absalom Jones who also was an influential clergy member in the Philadelphia area.
During Philadelphia’s Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, for awhile, it was believed that Americans of African descent were immune to the disease and thus members of the Free African Society were summoned as volunteers to help contain the crisis. Absalom and Richard organized and led relief efforts for the sick, grieving and dying in a city of people ravaged by the disease. Soon it was apparent that African Americans could indeed contract Yellow Fever. Nevertheless, Absalom, Richard and their associates persisted with efforts to tend to city residents who were suffering and in dire need of help and compassion. Some time after the epidemic, both men went on to establish and lead independent Black congregations.
Even though they have yet to receive the recognition they deserve, I acknowledge these two great men as framers of what we now know as American philanthropy as well as the Black Church. Their Christian beliefs, philanthropic virtue, spirit of social reform and bold action have influenced how many Americans give back for more than 220 years.