Though burial societies once existed in other cities (New Orleans and Baltimore, for example), Charleston likely is the only place where the old organizations remain active, said Leila Potts-Campbell, field archivist at the Avery Center.
Charleston's established whites instead encouraged free blacks to form benevolent societies so they might collect dues and purchase land for cemeteries, according to Potts-Campbell
In their heyday, the societies were as concerned with the living as with the dead, Potts-Campbell
Since the white society offered free slaves little in the way of social services, black communities had to be self-sufficient.
The burial societies were one way to build a safety net, Potts-Campbell
They cultivated a sense of community; paid for the education of orphaned children; arranged an apprenticeship for teenage boys so they might learn a trade, find work and support a family; provided financial support to the sick and dying; offered widows an annuity or modest monthly stipend to help with living expenses; purchased property; and arranged for burials.
Since the societies were urban and their membership limited, they were considered elitist by some, Potts-Campbell
In fact, they were merely pragmatic, ensuring that city-dwelling free people of color had access to essential resources, and that the size of the group was manageable, she
After the quashed Denmark Vesey-led slave rebellion, the state instituted a law restricting the number of blacks that could meet at one time to seven.
The Brown Fellowship Society
petitioned the city to allow larger gatherings since politics was not discussed, Potts-Campbell