I am training for the marathon here in Mobile and this is the end of my first 60 mile week. Although I don’t define myself as a runner, I guess running 60 miles in a week would be dumb for a non-runner. Here in Mobile,we  runners can pursue our avocation outside almost every day of the year. I am further blessed by living just north of a large, antebellum cemetary (Magnolia Cemetary) where a circuit is about 1.8 miles or, put another way, it takes 2 1/2 laps over 45 minutes to run 5 miles

Running for several hours gives one a lot of reflecting time. While running today I reflected on being called a socialist by our medical students for pointing out that the Democrats had won the election and would probably dictate changes in health care policy (being right doesn’t make one especially popular) and the results of the cloture vote which proved my point. After that my thoughts turned to the cemetary and the monuments contained within. Many of the private graves have clustered dates which coincide with outbreaks of yellow fever or influenza but my attention today was drawn to the monuments  with labels such as Woodmen of the World, Watermen’s Association, and Fire Department Association among others .These were put up by benevolent societies.

In an article about benevolent societies at the turn of the last century, C. A. Spencer identifies these as “any local voluntary or incorporated non-profit association organized with or without capital stock providing mutual assistance for its members in the form of services or payments.” These organizations were designed to offer protection to their members at cost with the organizations constitution specifying the benefits to be provided such as sickness, disability, burial, and occasionally survivor. The as many (if not all of the members) belonged to the labor class, services usually provided by family members and servants to upper class folks were provided by the society which was an incentive for membership. These services included “watching” the sick and providing a physician who was kept on retainer. The members when not sick got to (and still get to) wear some great costumes and have a lot of fun. For example, the Mobile (Alabama) Turner’s Association celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of its founding in 1868, according to the Mobile Daily Register, with a parade, an address, and a song and dance exercise followed by fireworks.  As white workers became more prosperous, their societies tended to become less important to the provision of services (they were able to pay cash or their workplace provided doctors) but because of the economic precariousness of blacks in the early 20th century (most men were laborers), their societies were more likely to have survived. Interestingly, some of these societies have evolved into insurance companies.

Benevolent Societies were an important way to aggregate resources among African-Americans, recent immigrants, and members of common crafts (particularly if there was an element of physical risk). They became less important to the provision of healthcare in the 1950’s with the rise of employer based insurance and government-funded coverage to the poor and the elderly in the 1960’s. Perhaps if we all still had a vested interest in our own health as well as that of our immediate neighbor-in-the-funnny-hat then the debate over paying for health care reform would be a little more civil.