Quakers and Reparations

School teachers and university professors often tell me how much they learn just by doing their jobs. You can’t teach something until you know it. The same is true with podcasting. While I read lots of stuff to enrich my mind and understanding of the world, most of my learning comes from interviewing guests and researching topics for the various podcasts I produce. Oh, and I also learn a lot from TikTok.

This week I premiered a short podcast episode that looks at reparations. It got me reading essays like A Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates, including this section about a famous Quaker abolistionist.

“A heavy account lies against us as a civil society for oppressions committed against people who did not injure us,” wrote the Quaker John Woolman in 1769, “and that if the particular case of many individuals were fairly stated, it would appear that there was considerable due to them.”

As the historian Roy E. Finkenbine has documented, at the dawn of this country, black reparations were actively considered and often effected. Quakers in New York, New England, and Baltimore went so far as to make “membership contingent upon compensating one’s former slaves.” In 1782, the Quaker Robert Pleasants emancipated his 78 slaves, granted them 350 acres, and later built a school on their property and provided for their education. “The doing of this justice to the injured Africans,” wrote Pleasants, “would be an acceptable offering to him who ‘Rules in the kingdom of men.’ ”

That was not new to me. Since I became a Quaker back in 2001, I heard about the noble work Quakers of old did to end slavery. What I did not learn about was the history of Quaker slavers, who ultimately liberated the humans they held in bondage, but it was not as virtuous as I had thought.

Avis Wanda McClinton eviewing documents in the Quaker and Special Collections library at Haverford College. Photos courtesy of the AW McClinton and Friends Journal.

One of my guests, Avis Wanda McClinton talks about Manumissions and her mission to identify the Africans enslaved by Quakers in Philadelphia. The Quaker and Special Collections archive at Haverford College contains documents for 339 enslaved Africans who were freed between 1765 and 1790 by slaveholding families in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Avis Wanda McClinton explains that “The goal of the project is to be a restorative, healing force that connects modern descendants with their enslaved ancestors, and to understand the lives of these first generations of ‘freemen.’”

I also spoke with Lucy Duncan and Rob Peagler from Reparation.Works. Lucy told me about a missed opportunity for Philadelphia Quakers to make amends.

Actually, Quakers were called to offer reparations in 1969 by the Black economic conference and deliberated and deliberated and deliberated. Muhammad Kenyatta was the person who made that call. He went on a hunger strike and the yearly meeting ended up only paying $5000 and minuted a commitment to pay $100,000, which they never paid. Muhammad Kenyatta said, you know, you aren’t you aren’t honest about your history of racism. And this is an example of it. They chose Quakers because they thought there would be an easy win.”

She also told me about how Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia has taken reparations seriously and has committed $500,000 over the next five years towards community projects to address injustice and inequities. “What Green Street did first was create a legal clinic to support Black homeowners in securing their housing wealth in the context of Green Street, Black members of the meeting are determining the use of those funds….That’s just the first year.”

I attend a small Quaker Meeting in rural Pennsylvania. Green Street Meeting in urban Philadelphia has two things my little Quaker Meeting
does not. For one, Green Street has a lot of people of color, but my meeting, well, like many Quaker meetings in the USA, all or nearly all of the members and attenders are white. And two Green Street already had money in reserve to draw upon. My meeting definitely does not have a financial reserve. Even without paid staff we struggle each year just to pay the bills in order to keep the meeting running. What is a relatively poor predominantly white small meeting able to do?

Both Rob and Lucy shared really helpful suggestions. The show is only 15 minutes plus an afterword where I share a listener response to our monthly question. It is a new podcast, so please, give it a listen and please share it with friends and colleagues. You will find the full show notes with a transcript over at Friends Journal. Quakers Today is available wherever you get podcasts.

Featured image courtesy of Friends Journal.


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