Responding to the "evils and Misfortunes of this World," the "free sons of ethiopia" of Salem, N.J., banded together in March, 1839, to form the United Sons of Salem Benevolent Society. Restricting their membership to "men of colour of good moral character" residing near Salem, a Delaware River port situated about 30 miles southwest of Philadelphia, the Society was organized "to obviate these evils and to assist in Alleviating the miseries of each other in Times of sickness and distress and contributing To the support of our Wives and children."
With poor prospects for reliable economic or social relations with whites, much less support, self-help organizations played a vital role in the well being of many African American communities. Beginning with the founding of the first "African" Masonic lodge in Boston in 1775, social and mutual aid societies contributed to the economic survival of African American businesses and served as a social safety net for the poorest members of society. In some cases, these organizations served as a well spring for political organization and the mobilization of resources.
As much an insurance agency as a charity, the United Sons had several models on which to construct their enterprise. Perhaps foremost of these was the Free African Society founded by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones in Philadelphia in 1787, with branches forming later in Newport, New York, and Boston. The Free African Society distributed aid among "distressed" members of the community, and worked to eliminate drunkenness and disorderly conduct.
Significantly, Allen and Jones were also co-founders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Among the members of the United Sons were Elisha and Francis Cuff, grandsons of Reuben Cuff of nearby Gouldtown, N.J., who had attended the founding convention of the A.M.E. Church in Philadelphia in 1816, and who served as minister of the Gouldtown A.M.E. Church for many years. The United Sons may also have succeeded a similar, local organization: the preamble of the Society's constitution cites the example of "the late Josiah Cornelius Late president of the Rush Benevolent Society." Josiah Cornelius (presumably Jr.) was among the founding members of the United Sons.
The United Sons capitalized their operation through a stiff membership fee -- thirty dollars -- and added to this incrementally by taking in small sums from fines for contravention of the rules of the society. Out of this capital, money was distributed to its members who fell ill or who had lost a wife or child, and in the case of the death of a member, money was granted to the widow and children. Like many "charitable" organizations of the day, requirements for membership in the United Sons were stringent and contingent upon proper comportment. The applicant was required to be between 21 and 45 years old, must be "free from all bodily infirmities which might render them burthensome to the Society," must pass the approval of an investigating committee regarding moral character, and must receive the approval of two thirds of the membership. Furthermore, members were required to pay annual membership fees and were fined for offences ranging from missing meetings to missing the funerals of members, and were expected to contribute small amounts to replenish the treasury after disbursements.
After running this gauntlet, members were eligible to receive crucial payments to tide them over when in need, and received some return in case of accident or death. Furthermore, they reaped the social benefits of belonging to the organization, and the ability to form business networks with other members of the African American middle class (the only ones likely to be able to afford to become members). According to the regulations of the Society, three stewards were to visit all sick members within 24 hours of being informed of the illness in order to determine whether benefits were in order, and if so, the beneficiary was to receive $2.50 weekly (unless the Society's funds dip below $200, in which case he would receive only $1.50). If the beneficiary died, the society provided $12.00 for burial within eighteen hours and a $1.00 stipend each month to his widow for five months. If children were present, they were to be provided with clothing and education "as a majority of the members present at any stated meeting may direct to be paid out of the funds of the Society." The deaths of wives and children of members were also covered: wives were compensated at $6.00 for funeral expenses, children $3.00 (for a child between 3 and 16).
The United Sons survived, and even flourished until at least 1867, continuing to add new members and discipline the old. Unlike many similar organizations, there is no evidence that it ever fulfilled any explicit political purpose. Even during the Civil War, its records make no mention of national, or even local events.