The plight of those freed from slavery by the American Civil War first came to the attention of the Ladies Negro Friend Society for Birmingham and the surrounding area in 1862. It called for contributions to be sent from Britain to provide aid. The scale of the need at that time was not well understood, but by 1864 it had become clear to the Society that there were severe shortages of shelter, clothing, hospitals, medical care and free employment for the hundreds of thousands of emancipated slaves who travelled northwards, leaving vast numbers destitute or dying.
At the 39th anniversary meeting of the Society in May 1864, the chair put forward a proposal from a member of the Erdington branch of the Society,
…that a ship should be freighted with stores and sent to the United States.
(40th annual report of the Birmingham Ladies Negro’s Friend Society, 1865, ref MS 3173/2/3)
which would, as Arthur Albright (1811–1900), leader of the National Freed Men’s Aid Union, later described at the 1867 Paris Anti-Slavery Conference, with reference to the cotton workers who suffered in the Lancashire Cotton Famine (1861 – 1865),
…pay back… those shiploads of corn and provisions sent from the United States to assist in feeding the pinched and patient artisans of Lancashire…’
(Paper given by Arthur Albright, Anti-slavery Conference Report, Paris 1867, ref 326.4)
Supported by Birmingham’s Mayor, the proposal was approved and a group of the city’s male abolitionist campaigners established the Birmingham and Midland Freed Men’s Aid Association on 12th May 1864. According to Clare Midgley in her book ‘Women against Slavery: The British Campaigns 1780-1870’, it was to become one of the most important Freed Men’s Aid Associations in the country and worked closely with the Ladies Negro Friend Society, helped by the fact that a number of the members were related. The Association was chaired by Edward Gem, with Benjamin H. Cadbury and Charles Felton as secretary. Although it was a non-denominational group, many of its members were Quakers.