Why Are There So Few African American Friends?
In memory of Black Quaker Anthropologist Vera Green (6 September 1928 - 17 January 1982)
"If Quakers were so active in the Abolitionist movement, then why are there so few African American Friends today?” This haunting query was initially posed by a concerned Black Cuban Quaker visiting Wellesley Friends Meeting some years ago. In an attempt to answer his question, our ministry has drawn on the writings of various Black and white Quaker intellectuals throughout USA history, including educator, writer, and abolitionist Sarah Mapps Douglass (1806-1882); scholar Henry J. Cadbury (1883-1974); economist Barrington Dunbar (1901-1978); pioneering Civil Rights lawyer Mahala Ashley Dickerson (1912-2007); contemporary author, educator, and former Friends General Council (FGC) executive director Dwight Wilson; and most notably, anthropologist Vera Green (1928–1982), whose birthday, 6 September, we celebrate today. In recognition of her valuable research on this topic, we offer six reasons why the Religious Society of Friends (RSOF) has failed to attract significant numbers of African Americans. We invite you to add other possibilities.
1. Historical Treatment: Discrimination & Segregation
Although Quakers stand amongst history’s most outspoken abolitionists, Friends did not treat African Americans as equals–as the Daniel-Julye book title so well expressed, Fit For Freedom, not for Friendship. People of African descent who regularly attended Quaker Meetings often endured various indignities, including the humiliation of segregated seating. This was condemned by Sarah Mapps Douglass when she wrote: “If Friends only knew the anguish this one common expression of theirs, ‘this bench is for the black people:’ —’This bench is for the People of Color,’ inflicts on the sensitive and tender amongst us: if they knew how it shuts up the springs of life, and causes us to turn away from their Meetings...”[i] Mount Holly Monthly Meeting (NJ) rejected membership applications from William Boen (1735–1824) for forty years despite the avid support of famed abolitionist John Woolman; the Meeting only admitted him ten years before his death.[iii] In The Journal of Negro History (1936), historian Henry J. Cadbury describes Philadelphia Yearly Meeting as resistant to the prospect of integrated membership in the late 18th century, feeling it “unsafe” to allow African Americans to join.[ii] In the 1950s Quakers barred prominent attorney Mahala Ashley Dickerson from membership at Indianapolis Friends Church out of fear that her presence would lower property values.[iv]
2. Lack of Exposure to Quakerism & Quaker Practice
In the present day, most African Americans lack exposure to Quakerism and the good deeds of Friends. When our ministry’s director, Harold D. Weaver Jr., was promoting our 2011 anthology, Black Fire: African American Quakers on Spirituality and Human Rights, his radio interviewers were frequently surprised that the RSOF still existed beyond the colloquial Quaker Oats brand. Friends schools and the American Friends Service Committee’s work camps were some of the few environments where African Americans developed positive, enduring relationships with Quakers and Quakerism.[vi] In his interview for our Quakers of Color International Archive, Dwight Wilson remembered that, while growing up within 50 miles of fifty different Meetings, he never knew anyone who admitted to being a Quaker.[v] Friends do not proselytize, but in his view, this does not mean that we should be silent about our activism, identity, beliefs, and accomplishments.
3. Skepticism of Non-Violence
In her pioneering 1973 ethnographic study, "Blacks and Quakerism: A Preliminary Report," Vera Green uncovered strong political and ideological tensions between American Quakers and African Americans who tended to be skeptical of non-violence [vi] despite the highly publicized, brave actions of Dr. King. Participants in Green’s study felt that adopting pacifism was equivalent to “copping out” in the face of nationwide systemic racism, and the casual direct violence against Black bodies this climate fostered.[vi] Barrington Dunbar recognized that his fellow Black Americans were cynical of the Peace Testimony, conceding that “[t]o dispossessed and disadvantaged nonwhites, the nonviolence that Friends profess sounds trite and hollow.”[vii] Some in Green’s study were even afraid of being derided as “Uncle Toms” by the Black community should they commit to passive resistance, which they conflated with docility and subservience.[vi]
4. Dissatisfaction with the Quaker Process
African Americans interviewed by Green were also frustrated with the deliberative pace of Quaker decision-making and felt that, by and large, Friends had done little to oppose USA imperialism abroad and racism at home.[vi] Quakers were perceived as being “too patient” and unable to take urgent, decisive action against societal injustices.[vi]
5. Preference for Black Churches
According to Green, most Black Americans prefer to join religious institutions in which they are the majority.[vi] The anthropologist concluded that Quakerism does not provide the same sense of agency, self empowerment, and kinship offered by Black denominations of Christianity.[vi] One individual in her study claimed: “Quakerism in the U.S. is of, by, and for members of the White community,”[vi] a sentiment reinforced by the unreasonable expectations of conformity placed on African American Friends. Barrington Dunbar was notably encouraged to temper his language after introducing himself as “Black and beautiful” during worship at New York Quarterly Meeting, his words having been perceived as a challenge to the testimony of equality.[viii] In contrast, predominantly Black churches seem to offer a greater sense of community and freedom of self-expression for African American worshippers.
6. Socioeconomic Divisions
The Religious Society of Friends is fundamentally an upper-middle-class institution oriented towards its affluent members. Quakers are often expected to “pay their own way”[vi] unlike Black Protestants, and are usually not compensated for expenses they incur in service to their Meeting and for their participation in organizational governance. Friends with the financial means to afford these costs are able to take on significant roles within the wider Quaker community, while those without disposable incomes are less likely to participate. As an additional financial benefit to those who can afford to join and serve their Meetings, many Quakers are able to declare expenses incurred in religious practices on their income-tax returns. Barrington Dunbar observed these class dynamics in Quaker schools he visited in 1975, which according to the economist, tended to admit only African Americans from middle-class families.[ix] Dunbar reported that Germantown Friends School seemed to be the sole institution, of those he observed, that accepted working-class Black students.[ix] More recently, we have seen a shift in the economic status of African American students admitted to Friends schools from middle class to working class. This is demonstrated in the 2012 documentary, The Prep School Negro, where director Andre Robert Lee presents modern African American students at Germantown Friends and other Friends’ day schools in Philadelphia. These students describe struggling with feelings of self doubt and inferiority in response to the socioeconomic disparity between their working-class backgrounds and the wealth of their white middle-class peers.[x] Even when African Americans gain access to Quaker spaces, there is still a socioeconomic and cultural divide between white and Black students.
Conclusion & Further Reading
It is important to recognize that there can be economic and psychological challenges for African Americans to become active participants in the RSOF. We feel that Friends must face the realities of our relationship with the African American community: Quakers historically treated people of African descent in a far less egalitarian manner than is often acknowledged; without radical anti-violence, our mere non-violence has been mistaken for passivity by many African Americans; Quakers no longer act with urgency in matters of racial justice; and it is difficult for present-day African Americans to establish connections with Quakers, or even learn about Quakerism, due to our social, cultural, and economic isolation. Friend Dwight Wilson sums it up well: if Quakers do not change, “we're only gonna be a shadow of who we might be.”[v]
We leave you with the following queries and encourage you to respond to us at email@example.com with your thoughts and feelings:
Why do you personally feel that there are so few African American Friends?
What do you feel the RSOF might do to attract more Black Friends in the USA? What does the RSOF really have to offer African American seekers?
If you would like to learn more about Vera Green, please consult our 2011 anthology, Black Fire: African American Quakers on Spirituality and Human Rights (2011) by Harold D. Weaver Jr., Paul Kriese, and Stephen W. Angell. We also highly recommend the groundbreaking text: Fit For Freedom, Not For Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice (2009) by Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye, who explore the roots of Quaker behavior towards African Americans.
Peace and Blessings,
The BlackQuaker Project
5 September 2023