Recently, I was fortunate enough to come across a show called Who Do You Think You Are?. For those who don’t know, this is a documentary series that traces the family history of various celebrities.
In this episode, they were talking with Lionel Richie, formerly of the Commodores. His great-grandfather, John Louis Brown, was a member of Knights of the Wise Men, which was one of the earliest black-owned fraternal insurance agencies!
Well, you know I had to find out more.
This led me to learning so much more about the mutual aid societies and fraternal orders that were formed by free blacks early in American history. These organizations worked to provide support to Black families, especially widows and orphans, and to care for the sick. They also helped ensure that the dead were buried with dignity.
Some of these societies were:
- the African Free Society, formed in 1780 by free blacks in Newport, Rhode Island
- the Free African Society of Philadelphia, formed in 1787 by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones
- the Brown Fellowship Society, formed in 1790 in Charleston, South Carolina
In fact, in 1849 over a hundred of these societies existed in Philadelphia alone!
One of the most important notable figures was William Washington Browne, who founded the Grand United Order of the True Reformers in 1881. This society aimed to promote “happiness, peace, plenty, thrift, and protection” within the African-American community. It was quite popular, with a membership in the 1890s of 100,000 people in eighteen states. Browne’s innovative approach included using mortality tables to set premium rates.
Some fraternal organizations like the Masons, the Knights of Pythias, and the Oddfellows continued to provide insurance to African-American communities until the 1930s, but most of these mutual aid societies and fraternal orders evolved over time. They no longer participated in the fraternal and ritualistic side of the earlier societies, and became state-chartered insurance corporations, more like what we know today.
Blacks were discriminated against by white-owned insurance companies, which often refused coverage or offered inferior policies. However, because their policyholders were usually poor, most black-owned companies had to focus on what’s called industrial insurance, where policyholders paid small weekly premiums for minimal returns.
In the early 20th century, regulatory changes and increased operating costs made it a lot harder for black-owned companies to compete with white-owned companies. The higher costs of selling industrial insurance, combined with a lack of reliable information on black death rates, created challenges for these firms. Many black-owned insurance companies were bought out by white firms and absorbed into their organizations.
Despite these obstacles, there are still several African-American-owned insurance companies in the US. They continue a proud history of working with Black families during life and after death.
Did your family have one of these policies back in the day? Tell me about it in the comments!