Free African Union Society

The Free African Union Society, founded in 1780 in Newport, Rhode Island, was America’s first African benevolent society. Founders and early members included Prince Amy, Lincoln Elliot, Bristol Yamma, Zingo Stevens and Newport Gardner.[1]

Early Black history in Newport
Shiloh Baptist Church, 29 School Street
Union Colored Congregational Church, 49 Division Street
God's Little Acre burying ground


Although Rhode Island had abolished African slavery in 1652, this law was not enforced;[2][3] by 1750,[3] Rhode Island had more slaves per capita than any other New England state.[4][2] Enslaved blacks worked as seamen, farm laborers, and domestic servants.[4] It was not until the Rhode Island General Assembly passed the Gradual Emancipation Act in March 1784 that slavery in Rhode Island was gradually ended.[2] Even after this time, Newport, as a busy port city, remained a center of the U.S. slave trade until at least 1807.[4]

Since most sources of welfare at the time were controlled by whites, free blacks across the early United States created their own mutual aid societies. These societies offered cultural centers, spiritual assistance, and financial resources to their members.[5] Founded in 1780, Newport's Free African Union Society was the first mutual aid society for blacks in the United States,[1] and similar societies formed throughout the Northeast during the next thirty years,[5] including Philadelphia's Free African Society in 1787.


Because Newport was a major slave port, the city was home to one of the largest populations of enslaved and free Blacks in the American Colonies.[6]

The Free African Union Society of Newport was established on November 10, 1780 by Newport Gardner, Zingo Stevens and Prince Amy.[7] The purpose was to assist the poor and sick, and to show mainstream white society that blacks could be responsible citizens.[8] They provided members with proper burials, cared for widows and orphans, and promoted the cause of abolition.[8] They also kept basic records of blacks in the community, and hired young enslaved black apprentices in hopes of helping them purchase their freedom.[5]

At least 85 members of the Free African Union Society between 1787 and 1810 have been identified by name.[9] Founding members included Abraham Casey, Salmar Nubia, Quam Bowers, Zingo Stevens, Quash Mowat, Cubber Rodman, Cudjo Hicks, Congo Jenkins, Cuffe Mumford and Arthur Tikey.[6]

In 1824, the society changed its name to Colored Union Church and Society. [5]

Early Black churches in NewportEdit

The center of the African American community in Newport, as elsewhere, was the church. Newport’s first African heritage church and congregation was chartered in 1824 as the Union Colored Congregational Church (49 Division Street), followed by Mount Zion AME Church in 1845 (1 Zion Place), Shiloh Baptist in 1869 (29 School Street) and Mount Olivet in 1897 (79 Thames Street).[6]

Newport is home to a large African-American burying ground called "God's Little Acre."[8] It may be home to the largest and oldest surviving collection of burial markers of enslaved and free Africans from the time period.[8]

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

  • "African Union Society Membership in Newport, Rhode Island between 1787 and 1810". God's Little Acre. Retrieved 20 December 2017.


  1. ^ a b Stokes, Keith (19 December 2017). "R.I.'s former slaves achieved great things". The Providence Journal. Retrieved 20 December 2017.
  2. ^ a b c "Slavery and the Slave Trade in Rhode Island". John Carter Brown Library. Brown University. Retrieved 31 December 2017.
  3. ^ a b Waxman, Olivia (18 May 2017). "America's First Anti-Slavery Statute Was Passed in 1652. Here's Why It Was Ignored". Time. Retrieved 31 December 2017.
  4. ^ a b c Harper, Douglas. "Slavery in Rhode Island". Slavery in the North. Retrieved 31 December 2017.
  5. ^ a b c d Michael Barga. "African Union Society". Social Welfare History Project. Virginia Commonwealth University. Retrieved 20 December 2017.
  6. ^ a b c Stokes, Keith (9 February 2020). "Black History Month Newport: Places of Worship". What's Up Newport. Archived from the original on 11 June 2020. Retrieved 9 May 2021.
  7. ^ Rhode Island Historical Society. "African Free Union Society Meeting". Encompass. Retrieved 26 October 2021.
  8. ^ a b c d Belmore, Ryan (10 November 2016). "First Attested Black Mutual Aid Society in Nation Was Formed in Newport on November 10, 1780". What's Up Newport. Retrieved 31 December 2017.
  9. ^ "African Union Society Membership in Newport, Rhode Island between 1787 and 1810". God's Little Acre. Retrieved 20 December 2017.