“Quaker Brotherhood: Interracial Activism and the American Friends Service Committee, 1917-1950″*

Reviewed by H. Larry Ingle

Friends often are at their best when they have visible opponents who are deeply entrenched, respectable, and powerful but support some odious practice – think slaveholders. But the reality is that partially through dramatic Quaker pre-Civil War and wartime pressure, President Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery 150 years ago this year. Yet, though defeated, former slaveholders remained deeply entrenched, respectable, and powerful; they maintained control through a system of racial segregation, which lasted another 100 years. So Jim Crow’s residual effects are all around us today.

    What has happened to the Religious Society of Friends in the meantime is that we are in a long, gradual decline, both in numbers and relative influence. Something our Friendly ancestors testified against more than 350 years ago, outward, carnal weapons, we have not been nearly as successful in eliminating as we were against slaveholding. And fighting long predated slavery.

    Of much less importance but related to it is the decline of attention to Quaker history in the 20th and 21st centuries. Except what we remember, we know almost nothing about Friends in the 20th century: even the history of institutions and personal memoirs, often the earliest subjects to attract writers, have not appeared to any major extent. Part of this lacuna can not be laid directly at Quakers’ feet, for religion has not been taken seriously by modern scholars since the Civil War, a point made by our author, Allan Austin, on his publisher’s website.

    Which brings us to his book, Quaker Brotherhood, a valuable, if a bit wooden and plodding, study of the American Friends Service Committee’s on-and-off-again engagement with race and racial relations from its founding ninety-six years ago until a bit after 1950. Without explicitly exploring the problem of Quakerism’s decline, he inadvertently supplies information that addresses that ominously troubling reality. And he does so as he helps etch in some of the forgotten history of Friends in the 20th century. For this historically oriented Friend, the book makes me long for someone else to undertake an exploration of the many gaps in recent Quaker history.

    At the beginning, I must say that my enthusiasm for the book is tempered by two relatively minor but irritating habits that Austin, a professor of history at Misericordia University, should have learned to avoid in graduate school:

  1. Never, unless absolutely necessary, quote another scholar, however eminent, for eminence does not bring more insight than the present author is also capable of. I say this despite the fact that he quotes my brilliant published comments on two occasions, as well as those of numerous others.
  2. He loads his readers’ minds with name after name without identifying them, sometimes after they have appeared a half dozen times. That makes for poor understanding and a loss of continuity. My old professor used to say that one should not use Jesus’ name without identifying him.

    Those little rebukes behind us, let us applaud Austin’s deep research in AFSC’s archives, so much so that parts of his book read like the kind of bloodlessly innocuous prose that characterizes too many Service Committee reports. But the story he relates is a valuable one, even if the Committee could not always find the funds to finance its good intentions after 1924 or now, probably. That was the year that Rufus Jones, a founder, remarked that AFSC should not go on “unless we are sure we have a vital mission to perform” (p. 19) and then instanced “interracial relationship” as one likely area.

    Austin divides his book into five chapters, each covering a period of time not persuasively identified as different from the others. All the interracial efforts struggled with finding money to operate and flew under a variety of names: Interracial Section, American Interracial Peace Committee, Committee on Race Relations, Institute of Race Relations (which collapsed in 1938, leaving a vacuum for at least four years), Race Relations Committee, and Community Relations Committee. During the first years of World War Two, Austin pads his accounts with AFSC’s activities with European refugees from fascism, which had little to do with race. From 1942 until the end of the war, the book centers on assistance given Japanese-Americans who had been incarcerated in “relocation camps” in arid regions of the west.

    Apparently almost any Quaker’s suggestions on race that made it to the archives merits mentioning; one of the most unexpected was Swarthmore graduate and muckraking columnist Drew Pearson who wrote to tie together race and peace as challenges to the Committee, but Austin fails to offer any explanation or background and presses on. More unknown was non-Friend and African American Alice Dunbar-Nelson, who pretty much held together the interracial work during the late 1920s and early 30s, and grew weary of struggling with white Quakers and raising money, never enough to maintain herself.

    After World War II, the Service Committee began to change and take on a less Friendly, more political, tone (although interestingly enough its pronouncements still partook of the old days, as late as 1952 a fund-raising appeal lamented “tragic denials of both our Christian faith and our democratic ideals” [p.178]). Even before the end of the war, its longtime secretary, Clarence Pickett, had opted for more professionals on the staff and fewer Quaker volunteers. Austin is certainly aware of and writes about this shift, and, perhaps unbeknownst to himself, echoes some of the criticism of AFSC being made from the 1970s to the 1990s by critics such as Kenneth Boulding, Chuck Fager, and others, but he does not focus on them.

    Austin is writing a broader book than one for Quakers, but his narrow focus on AFSC’s work on race relations means he does not focus enough on context and background for readers to fully understand the issues. Examples are too numerous to list, so Flanner House, a self-help housing program in a blighted area of Indianapolis, is one good example. AFSC became involved in 1944, when Cleo Blackburn, a black man interested in “Negro development” (p. 152), contacted the Committee, and staffers  thought his ideas sounded like what they had been doing with work camps in the south for a decade. (Background about Blackburn is sketchy, and nothing about previous work camps is offered.) Three years later as hoped-for funds from various foundations fail to appear, a highly critical report from an apparent Quaker couple, the Petherbridges, suddenly surfaces, and in 1948, the Philadelphia headquarters of AFSC drops out.

    Austin presents specifics from the Petherbridge report and mentions the problems of administering the Indianapolis project from Pennsylvania, but without more details about Blackburn, what the problems of distant administration were, where the Petherbridges came from, and why they were appointed, readers simply do not have enough information to make sense of all the machinations. What we have here is a kind of AFSC Archives-based institutional history, without enough background to understand the issues, either of the specific project or the AFSC as a whole.

    As an historian who is a non-Friend, Austin is not primarily (or even expected to be) concerned with whether the influence of Friends has declined since the victory of abolition in the Civil War, but readers here are. Quakers can read his book and fill in some of the blanks he has left us with:

  1. What do we do to roll back our decline in numbers?
  2. How do we recapture the fervor and commitment that fueled abolitionism into a nation-changing force?
  3. Why doesn’t the specter of outward weapons haunt us as much as it did our forbears? In this era of drones ours are infinitely worse.
  4. And most basic of all for those who think AFSC is not beyond salvation, what is the relationship between faith and practice?


* Allan W. Austin, Quaker Brotherhood: Interracial Activism and the American Friends Service Committee, 1917-1950 (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 257 pp. $55.00.

Leave a comment