“A History of Southland College: The Society of Friends and Black Education in Arkansas,”* A Review

Reviewed by Stephen Angell

Thomas C. Kennedy is probably the most significant historian of Quakerism writing today that most American Quakers have never heard of. He has recently retired from the history faculty of the University of Arkansas. Most of his research has involved British pacifists. His British Quakerism, 1860-1920: The Transformation of a Religious Community (Oxford University Press, 2001) may be the definitive treatment of the transformation of British Quakers at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, from primarily a group of Evangelical Christians to a group of Liberal Christians (with a trajectory, after the 1920 close of his book, toward a community with a generous number of post-Christians). He also provides insights into the manner that the peace testimony took a more central role in the faith and practice of Liberal Quakers. He has also written on the World War I anti-draft organization, the No-Conscription fellowship, and other related issues.

His foray into research on American Quakers evidently came as something of a surprise to him, as a Europeanist.  But, about three decades ago, he stumbled onto the fact that, not far from his home in Arkansas, the Society of Friends had sponsored a momentous work in African-American educational and religious life from 1864 to 1925, an institution known as Southland (at times styled an “Institute,” at other times a “College.”), based in Helena, in northeast Arkansas. He became fascinated by a subject that required less travel than his British researches, and in a rather unlikely set of circumstances stumbled onto a voluminous collection of Southland resources in a meeting attic in my hometown of Richmond, Indiana.

The result is a 349-page work that displays his usual clarity, thoroughness, and good sense.  I join with the assessment of Earlham archivist Tom Hamm, who on the book jacket opines that this is “the most detailed portrait we will ever have of Southland College.” Other Quaker historians, including Henry Cadbury in a 1935 article in the Journal of Negro History, Linda Selleck in her book Gentle Invaders, and Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye in their landmark work Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African-Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice (Quaker Press of FGC, 2009), have taken notice of Southland. (In the case of McDaniel and Julye, they rely to some extent on articles published by Kennedy in preparation of this volume.) But Kennedy’s book provides us with a much fuller story.

Kennedy’s story is an intricate one. The whites who lived at Southland College were ostracized by the Southern white community in no uncertain fashion. The black community surrounding Southland could be expected to be loyal supporters of the enterprise, although violence against black Arkansans by Ku Kluxers and bulldozers sent many fleeing to Kansas and other locations where peaceable living seemed more obtainable. Tornados and a flooding Mississippi River posed additional challenges. There was more than one horrendous case of lynching or white-on-black mob violence in the near vicinity of the school, although it would be hard to tell that from the written communications of Southland Quakers. They were willing to discuss the natural disasters, but not the intimidation and violence unleashed by the majority population.

The financial ability of the black community to support Southland was always modest, and determined to a large extent on such vicissitudes as the size of the cotton crop and the price of cotton. Southland College thus could only be kept alive by considerable and determined donations from the outside to the Indiana Missionary Board.  There were efforts to raise an endowment for the school, with some meager results, but it was not anywhere near enough to ensure that the school would prosper.  In some ways, what is most surprising is that Southland endured as long as it did.

In the beginning, Southland was both a religious and educational enterprise. Southland’s founders, Calvin and Alida Clark, were determined to spread Quakerism among black Arkansans. The Clarks were Orthodox and evangelical; they valued both waiting worship and revivals. They would emphatically not follow Ohio Yearly Meeting’s David Updegraff into his embrace of the physical sacraments. As a result of their work, a group of black Quaker ministers and members were raised up. The Clarks clearly sought to create a black Yearly Meeting in Arkansas, but any attempts to establish meetings at locations other than Southland itself were short-lived. It is hard to determine how many African Americans became converts to Quakerism; hundreds were claimed on the membership list, but there were few attempts to determine how long the converts remained active.

Much of the fate of the Quaker meetings in Arkansas rested on the indefatigable labors of black ministers.  Kennedy mentions such homegrown Quaker preachers as Daniel Drew, Joseph Coleman, George Wilburn, Arthur Crump, Calvin Kerr, Chandler Paschall, and Henrietta Kitterall. Kitterall was one of the first students and graduate at Southland, an orphan who the Clarks considered their adopted daughter. At Southland, she learned her Bible and came to “love [her] Savior,” and she sought a useful way to serve Christ. She was accepted into membership in the far-off Whitewater Monthly Meeting (the Clark’s home meeting) in Richmond in 1868, and was recorded as a minister sometime in the 1880s. She subsequently became a teacher at Southland, and married another Southland graduate (and Presbyterian) Benjamin Knox.

On religious matters, the Clarks became quite dependent on Daniel Drew, an African-American Civil War veteran who was recorded in Quaker ministry, again in Whitewater Meeting, in 1870. Drew was apparently an accomplished minister and revivalist. When he left Arkansas in 1880 to minister in Maryville, Tennessee, evangelistic and ministerial work among African Americans in Arkansas languished; when he returned three years later, it picked up again. The Clarks testified to his “passionate” rejection of outward sacraments and his firm advocacy of temperance.

Kennedy notes the exaggerated content of one Southland supporter’s statement that fuller financial backing of evangelists like Drew would result in “a Yearly Meeting in Arkansas in a short time,” but that expression was clear testimony to the Indiana Quakers’ high regard for this “humble,” “efficient,” and eloquent Quaker minister.  When a Northern Quaker revivalist had to cancel his visit to Southland with little notice, “a spontaneous meeting of students and faculty gathered under the ministry of Daniel Drew, and all but one of those in attendance were saved.” (133) In 1902, Drew requested a transfer of membership to the Friends Church in Portland, Oregon, again dealing a blow to African American Quakerism in Arkansas by his departure. One of Kennedy’s footnotes informs us that, in 1907, Drew, still in Oregon, had transferred his membership to the AME Church.

A review published in a recent issue of Quaker Theology (#16) noted the Philadelphia-centered discourse of McDaniel’s and Julye’s Fit for Freedom. Among other things, Kennedy’s book begins to correct a narrative of African-American Quakerism that is too centered on liberal, unprogrammed Friends and on the vicinity of Philadelphia. McDaniel and Julye did take notice of such African American Quaker revivalists as Noah McLean and William Allan (and made one reference to Drew), but Kennedy’s portrait deepens our picture of African-Americans’ contributions to evangelical Quaker culture away from the East Coast.

Naturally, Kennedy’s account also raises further questions for historians to explore. To mention only one: Why, after more than three decades of indefatigable labor among Friends, did Drew defect to the African Methodists? Something must have caused him to overcome his scruples against outward sacraments. Kennedy provides us with no clue, but, to be fair, Oregon is outside of Kennedy’s geographic scope in this book.

In the final decades of its existence, Southland remained religious, but it was less distinctively Quaker. The Southland Meeting came to celebrate broadly Christian virtues, first and foremost. Employers still praised the morals and character of Southland’s graduates. But nobody spoke any longer of a black Yearly Meeting of Friends in the South.

Assessing the educational accomplishments of Southland is a difficult task. There were many who praised Southland’s graduates. It was known especially for the training of teachers, and Kennedy tells us that “appeals arrived from across the South, from Texas to Florida, pleading for instructors trained at the Quaker academy. Not all such requests were for teachers, the students of one black medical school [pleaded for Southland to] “send us more students; they are our very best.” (196) It provided an alternative to the very bad public schools for AfricanAmericans.

But accomplishments were not always achieved by means that would be approved at other Quaker schools. The teachers had tremendously high teaching loads, and were paid intermittently. White teachers were paid more than black teachers. Students were allowed to enroll after the crops had been harvested, and sometimes that was weeks into the session. Harry Wolford, president of Southland for all but one year between 1903 and 1922, engaged in extensive buying and selling of land; he claimed he was doing this with the best interests of his students and their families in mind. And indeed African Americans in Arkansas staunchly backed Wolford and his school. Wolford was perhaps the only president of Southland who was accepted by both the white and black communities in the vicinity of Helena, Arkansas.

The changing convictions on the matter of racial equality by the Quakers who administered Southland are important parts of Kennedy’s story. He covers the debate that was raging at the time between the literary education which abolitionists and many black intellectuals favored, versus the vocational or “industrial” education advocated by Booker T. Washington and many northern white philanthropists. Following the sentiments of abolitionist Calvin and Alida Clark, the Southland Meeting had always been racially integrated, but as the abolitionists (especially with the death of Alida in 1892) began to fade from the scene, their successors did not always have the same commitment to racial equality.

William Russell served a short term as President of Southland in the 1890s, and he chose to remain in the area after stepping down from the Presidency. It was after he relinquished the Presidency that he proposed a new meeting house be built just for whites. He was quietly but clearly rebuked for this request by the Indiana Missionary Board. He then asked for his membership to be transferred from Southland Meeting to Whitewater Meeting in Indiana. This request too was apparently refused. Southland Friends finally acceded to his request to transfer his membership to the local Methodist Church.

The 1920s, when Southland College was closed down, saw many low points and perhaps a high point or two in Quaker commitments to race relations. The newly-founded American Friends Service Committee established a program to build interracial understanding. But, in Indiana, many Quakers joined the Ku Klux Klan at its height of activity in that state, engendering fierce (but hard-to-trace) disputes in meetings such as Newcastle, where Daisy Douglass Barr, head of the Klan’s female auxiliary had just become pastor. Oral tradition has it, that after two years of controversy, Klan opponents at Newcastle gathered just enough strength to force Barr out of the pastorate. (Newcastle’s handwritten minutes reside in the Earlham archives, but the minutes for those two years – and only those two years – are missing.)

Kennedy lays out the complex story of Southland’s demise. The Indiana Home Missionary Board came under new management, closely allied with the modernist faction in Friends United Meeting. Kennedy suggests that the modernists partook of some of the racial idealism and some of the casual racial bigotry of the time. They entrusted management of Southland to an energetic twenty-five-year-old Earlham graduate named Raymond Jenkins, who managed to upset many apple carts and alienate many supporters of the school, including the still-influential Harry Wolford, who would stop at little to undermine Jenkins. The Missionary Board and Jenkins were dissatisfied with the important role played by Southland in local Arkansas society, and sought to raise its natio-nal profile, but that would have taken large amounts of funds, which despite some concerted fundraising attempts, were not forthcoming.

The faltering of the always-precarious funding base, combined with the disagreements over the school’s mission, were enough to make the school’s closing seem the most logical step in 1925, and that is what the Indiana Home Missionary Board decided to do with Southland that year. In a brief epilogue, Kennedy observes that there is no physical trace of Southland College today, but Southland graduates had kept its memory alive for a long time among African-American Arkansans. For the latter, the school’s demise was “an inexplicable tragedy. ‘We never did understand what happened in Indiana,’ said one.”  (267)

If this was significant only as a local history, it could be allowed to fade into the kind of semi-obscurity whereby only a few scholars of history know about it, and everyone else could safely ignore it. But this is a much more important book; it is a wellresearched, well-written, and highly insightful account of the most sustained effort by American Quakers to build up institutions that would serve African Americans, and of the noteworthy successes and failures that ensued from this worthy effort. As one of the most informative windows into the past of Quaker race relations, it deserves a wide reading among Friends. Buy it for your personal and your Meeting libraries.


*Thomas C. Kennedy, A History of Southland College: The Society of Friends and Black Education in Arkansas. Fayetteville, Arkansas: University of Arkansas Press, 2009.

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