“Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship, Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice”* A Review

Reviewed by Chuck Fager

Winston Churchill was once told, regarding another politician, that “Mr. X is a very modest man.” “Yes,” Churchill replied, “but then, Mr. X has much to be modest about.”

Several times during eight years in North Carolina, I have been introduced as a Quaker to black persons of substance, mostly ministers.

To a person, when they heard “Quaker,” their faces have brightened and they said something like, “Oh, the Quakers! They’re wonderful. They were with us when it really counted.”

But such praise evokes in me a double reaction. One is the classic panic fear-of-discovery response:

Yes but, goes the voice in my head, would you still feel that way if you knew how much support for segregation there was, even among anti-slavery Friends? And how long segregation lasted in Quaker schools here and elsewhere? And how many Quakers even joined the Klan back in the day?

So far, I’ve managed to keep my mouth shut and simply thank them for their high opinion of Friends. But if any of them ever reads this landmark book, then, no question, the jig will definitely be up.

Or will it? At the same time as my panic tape starts playing, there’s another voice defiantly shouting back, “Damn right. We rock. Final score: Quakers (and America) 1; slavery 0. Can’t touch this.”

Which is to say, my sense about Quakers and race is one of raging ambiguity. Compared to most other churches, Friends compiled pretty much an unexampled record of work for equality . . . but in many ways, that’s only because our dismal performance was just a small slice or two less dismal than the others. That is, we too have much to be modest about.

So how do I sort all this out?

Well, one thing is clear: reading Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice, won’t help much.

I don’t say that as criticism, though, rather as praise. Among many important achievements, the book does a good job presenting this ambiguous, light-and-shadow saga in all its glorious and depressing ambiguity.

Yet even that may be a letdown for some readers. The “myth of racial justice” in the title can be read at least a couple of ways: one is as the myth that U.S. society has been a place of continual progress toward equality for all; we pretty much know about the self-deceit in that one.

But that “myth” can also refer to widespread and long-lived smugness among white Friends, in my time at least, that we are and always have been on the side of the angels when it came to matters of racial equality: cutting edge, forefront, ahead of their time, and other phrases generally associated with an urgent need for a cold splash of humility.

The authors have been traveling among us for some time prior to the book’s publication, pointing out how this self-regard is highly exaggerated, or true only in a qualified and limited way. For that matter, just about any foray of serious research into American Quaker history since the Civil War would yield data to blow that myth to smithereens. Maybe that’s one of the reasons there has been so little serious research into this history among us.

Until now. Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship thus serves as a landmark in more ways than one. The too-common sense of satisfaction about race is but one of several self-serving Quaker myths exposed in their pages. This is so despite the fact that even the authors get tangled up in them at times.

For instance, on their first page they declare, “In the 1780s . . . enslavement violated the Golden Rule [and] Friends testimonies of equality, peace and simplicity . . . .”(3)

Yet in the 1780s, there were no such things as Friends testimonies of equality, peace and simplicity. Look for them in the old Disciplines; they’re not there. This list is a modern invention, owing most to Howard Brinton.

The authors know this; by page 12 they are citing scholars who make clear that Fox, Penn and other leaders down to 1780 definitely believed in the IN-equality of the races. Penn owned slaves, and many Quaker merchants were active in the slave trade for decades without rebuke. Fox and company likewise affirmed the subordination of women to men, servants to masters, and rank-and-file Quakers, such as thee and me, to the “weightier” elders and ministers, like themselves, especially those with money.

The authors’ testimonial confusion is not a major slip, but illustrates how much most Quakers today are prisoners of anachronistic notions — notions that definitely don’t fit our past, and only imperfectly apply to our present. Like other believers, though, most Quakers are attached to our familiar myths. Which leads me to believe that this book will be one of the most bought, most widely-discussed – and least read – Quaker books of the decade.

That will be too bad, but there it is.

Nowhere is this disconnect more current than in matters of race. One of the book’s most sobering revelations relates to slavery and segregation only indirectly, by describing what a long, uphill struggle it was to change things, within our own ranks.

Prayer, patience, and an occasional letter to Congress — this was long the official Quaker recipe for ending slavery. Until after its day had passed, “abolitionism” was a near curse-word, usually uttered with a shudder, widely denounced, and often serving as grounds for disownment. Meetinghouses were largely closed to antislavery meetings and speakers. Indeed, several schisms resulted from conflicts over anti-slavery issues, though they are rarely talked about outside of other thick, unread histories. And the Underground Railroad was often more underground among Friends than elsewhere.

Still, this gloomy record of quietism and even collaboration coexisted with many true stories of courage and sacrifice: Lucretia Mott facing down mobs; Levi Coffin hiding fugitives in his house; and a succession of heroic figures including the Grimke sisters, Isaac Hopper, and Abby Foster Kelley.

Err, well, the succession included some of them: the Grimkes and Hopper were disowned for their abolitionist activities; Foster resigned so she could continue them. For that matter, Levi Coffin had to suffer through an acrimonious anti-slavery separation in Indiana Yearly Meeting. Lucretia Mott, who wanted to stay among Friends, had to fend off half a dozen disownment attempts to do so. (Her children, in light of this treatment, couldn’t quit Quakers fast enough as they matured.)

Further, aside from producing many memorable true stories, and dozens more legends, the American Quaker antislavery saga suffers from one huge, and I would have to say fatal failing: when push came to shove, it could not prevent the matter of slavery from being settled by war.

This outcome is American exceptionalism at its bloody worst. Other countries afflicted with slavery managed to end it more or less peacefully. In England, Quakers played a disciplined, organized, and crucial role in this outcome.

Here, however, the record, beneath the crust of legend, is dominated by unseemly and debilitating internecine squabbles. So much so that it would have taken a boatload of miracles for the Society to have played anywhere near a comparable peacemaking role, in the nation where arguably it was most needed.

More to be modest about indeed, but again, there it is. Yetm, it’s not the end. After the war and slavery’s official abolition, many Friends, especially women, set out for the South to labor for “uplift” of the freed people, a saga well-treated in these pages.

Such work often enough took courage, especially in the early days. The authors tell (163) how one Friend teaching in North Carolina was attacked by the Klan for “teaching niggers and making them like white men.” (Parenthetically, this quote like a couple of others, shows a refreshing attitude toward use of the dreaded “n-word”; the authors cite it sparingly and without comment. Its offensiveness is made evident, without need for either dwelling on it or making it an unspeakable shibboleth.)

Here again, however, the story of these “gentle invaders” is a mixed one. Yes, they were brave. But a reader could also be forgiven for thinking that Quakers must have invented paternalistic, moralistic, self-righteous, resentment-breeding charity, or failing that, at least took out many of the early patents. In truth, the more I read about these people and their invincible philanthropic arrogance, the less I liked many of them. (174f)

It was rarely sufficient for Friends simply to give to those in need. No, when Quakers set out to do good, it was with a vengeance: names like “The Home for the Moral Reform of Destitute Colored Children”(122); the Bethany Mission, for “moral and religious education” as well as the “general elevation of the colored people”(127); the “Friends Association for the Aid and Elevation of the Freedmen”(151); the “Baltimore Association for the Moral and Educational Improvement of the Coloured People”(152) and so on.

Given such a list, it’s striking that when Northern Friends decided to help their (white) Carolina brethren recover from the Civil War’s devastation, the lead body was dubbed the Baltimore Association to ADVISE and ASSIST Friends In The South. (161; my emphasis.) Apparently white victims of the war were presumed not to need moral improvement as well — a judgment which, subsequent regional history suggests, could be overdue for a re-examination.

Moving through these pages, my initial cringe reflex at these items soon turned thoughtful. As lugubrious and embarrassing as some of those titles seem today, does not a review of today’s many Quaker lobbies and reforming committees disclose similar impulses for “moral improvement,” albeit more delicately labeled? Face it: Quakers are more dedicated to uplift than anything Maidenform bras or Otis elevators ever imagined.

Perhaps that’s why, even with all its failings, the post-bellum Quaker crusade has a kind of grandeur to it – while not making up for failure to prevent the war, they strove mightily to help clean up the mess. After all, how many of us who might squirm at Martha Schofield’s “paternalism” could even approach her record of teaching impoverished black students, in a continually hostile South Carolina, for forty-six dedicated years?

Further, did Schofield have any spiritual descendants? Good question. In my view this is a period where Fit for Freedom’s account falls seriously short, when it turns to the twentieth century and the more recent civil rights struggles. They deserve some credit for an effort to break out of the Philadelphia-Northeast-centrism which afflicts so much of our historiography; in some places they succeed, as with useful sections about Indiana, and a sketch of the experience of Mahala Ashley Dickerson, a black attorney, there and in Alaska.

Nevertheless, readers will learn much more about Philadelphia area issues and struggles than those elsewhere. (Indeed, mentions of Quakers west of the Mississippi, other than Kansas, are particularly sparse; did nothing of consequence ever happen in that half of the country?)

This northeastern bias is most conspicuous when it comes to the South. Here the authors’ geographical limits (one a Philadelphian, the other from near Boston) become quite problematical. For not only was the South the scene of many crucial civil rights battles; in those days it was also home to the largest body of American Friends, in North Carolina. More than that, North carolina was the “mother church” for much of midwestern Quakerism, exporting Friends by the thousands during the long struggle over slavery.

The experience of southern Friends amid the turmoil of those years constitutes a major piece of the story this book undertakes to tell. Yet in its pages, the saga is but scantily mentioned, and then mainly through the lens of projects run by the American Friends Service Committee.

AFSC’s witness deserves recognition; but many of its staff were newcomers to the region (what used to be called “outside agitators”), and its projects were mainly short-term. What about the scores of meetings filled with native North Carolinians, some of whose ancestors had been Friends in the state for three hundred years? What happened – and is happening – there?

The cursory character of much of this section is shown on page 338, when the authors write that “in 1962 members of Chapel Hill and Durham Friends Meetings in North Carolina purposely started to offer education to students of all colors . . . .”

Well, yes. But what they “started” for that purpose was the Carolina Friends School, which the text neglects to name, though it still exists and thrives. In one sense this is simply a typographical error; the footnote has the name. But it is one informed by, well, ignorance.

A second such solecism reflects similar inattentiveness: On page 229 they speak of “a gathering on racism in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1985 [at which], more than three hundred Young Friends representing 34 countries, 57 yearly meetings and 18 monthly meetings . . .” condemned racism. Alas, there was no such international anti-racism assembly; instead, they are referring to the World Gathering of Young Friends, which was built around many activities and concerns, of which this was but one.

Then there is the matter of Guilford College, also in Greensboro. Guilford is the only Deep South Quaker college. It was a major seedbed for the Underground railroad, it survived the Civil war and numerous other vicissitudes, and Greensboro was where the historic student lunch counter sit-ins began. Guilford was also segregated until the early 1960s, very late in the game. One might think that for a study of Quakers and race, its experience would be of keen interest. But here it is dealt with in a single paragraph, (346F) while that of Swarthmore and Haverford Colleges, in the Philadelphia area, get pages and pages (350-357).

Again unfortunately, for its main characterization of Carolina Quakers Fit for Freedom largely makes do with a brief quote from local historian Hiram Hilty that “the prevalent race attitudes of the region gradually found their way into the Religious Society of Friends in North Carolina.” (199)

While true in a way, this simply will not do. For one thing, except for opposition to slavery, the “prevalent race attitudes” were long since ingrained among Southern Quakers – because as the authors show, they were long since ingrained in northern Quakers as well. There was nothing “gradual” about it.

For another, “indigenous” NC Friends are not outliers: culturally they are very much of a piece with most other U.S. pastoral and evangelical Quaker groups. (Hence, for instance, the popularity of Ku Klux Klan membership among pastoral Indiana Friends in the 1920s, a fact which these authors do report – and Hoosier Friends’ studied amnesia about it since.) How did attitudes evolve among them, if they did? What impact did the civil rights movement have among North Carolina Friends, and others similarly situated? After all, together they make up the large majority of the U.S. Quaker population.

For an adequate account of Quakers and race, I consider this a very important – and still unanswered – question. Not two months ago, in the Year of Our Lord 2009, this reviewer attended sessions of the larger North Carolina Yearly Meeting, still one of the biggest; and among the hundreds present, not one person of color was to be seen. Nor was this fact or any implications mentioned.

Pardon the technical research jargon, but What’s Up With That? Simply calling them all racists (as Hilty’s comment, writ more plainly, does) explains nothing. (After all, in the “liberal” yearly meetings, one rarely finds more than a handful of Friends of color. Does their white brethren’s recurrent hand-wringing about that make an adequate response?) So why isn’t the situation of Southern Friends illuminated more by this book?

One can’t be too harsh, I suppose. The official version hereabouts runs something like this: there were “problems.” But Martin Luther King made it better, so everybody named streets after him; Obama. Now can we talk about something else, like foreign missions, or NASCAR?

It will take a lot of guts to push past this denial and whitewash. Yet the work will not all be negative: when this story is unearthed, it will also reveal some recent southern Quaker heroes. Two whom I think deserve much more attention are Morris Mitchell, a South Carolina native, and David Scull of northern Virginia. Mitchell faced down his own kind, and lived to tell the story; Scull likewise stood alone and unwavering in defiance of state repression. And doubtless there are others.

Still, many skeletons are rattling around in Southern Quaker closets, and our historians are not a notably courageous lot. Further, even to begin would have involved original research, and in turn required spending significant time in North Carolina and the South. This our authors did not attempt; but such neglect is an all-too familiar and resented fate for southerners, Quakers included.

As elsewhere, our maddeningly mixed record would also keep surfacing: take Morris Mitchell, whom I nominate as a hero and a pioneer; yet he also loved the Uncle Remus stories, even made a record album telling them in dialect, something that these days would be considered the height (depth?) of political incorrectness.

At this point, though, I may be getting ahead of myself. The landmark status of Fit for Freedom is not in doubt. It has brought together more useful material than anything before it. So there’s limited value in criticizing it for what it did not do, when what it did was so undeniably needed.

Part of an authentic landmark’s achievement, however, is to move those who comprehend it forward, toward additional explorations. So put my comments about the need for better understanding of the Southern Friends’ experience on that list, the resulting work-to-be-done roster.

Besides, some other achievements of the book deserve mention here. One is its candor in reporting on some of the differences among people of color, from arguments in the 1850s over “manual” education versus “academic” courses (126f), and over integration versus separatist black identity strategies (131), which prefigured the monumental debates between partisans of W.E.B. DuBois over against Booker T. Washington fifty years later (174-77).

Such debates continue in updated forms today. Indeed, the authors identify one major “conservative” voice in current controversy, Juan Williams (author of the 2008 polemic, Enough, which echoes the “Washingtonian” self-reliance meme), as a graduate of not one but two Quaker schools. (340, 351)

In light of this ongoing diversity, perhaps white Friends can be cut a bit of slack for echoing some of it. One of the most vividly described incidents in these pages is the 1969-70 crisis in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting over demands by the self-styled Black Economic Development Conference that PYM pay “reparations” for complicity with slavery and racism by turning over half a million dollars to it. (279-86)

After many heated meetings, BEDC did not get money from PYM, though a smaller fund was created and made some grants for related projects. What is interesting here is how the debate sounds forty years later. To this reviewer’s ears, those who voiced doubts and hesitation come off as the wiser heads. For one thing, BEDC itself proved to be an ephemeral effort, vanishing once its guilty liberals’ grant funding ran out.

For another, the rhetoric of its vocal (white) supporters in PYM seems to boil down to the assertion that to question BEDC’s demands, or to ask about the group’s viability, accountability or representativeness was “inherently racist.” (280) The record, however, shows that the doubts were quite well-founded. The cries of “racist” sound less like serious discussion, and more like manipulative devices to shut it down. I for one admire those silent Friends who held out against such posturing and bullying, and sought for ways to respond that were more characteristic, careful, and modest. Sorting out the mixed record of Friends, and drawing from that appropriate corporate actions, was not a simple matter in 1969, nor is it today; and being stampeded or bulldozed is no more attractive or Quakerly.

One more incident reported in the book here also embodies these dilemmas. At the 1994 FGC Gathering in southern Ontario, some white Friends planned a re-enactment of the Underground railroad, which was titled in the program as the “Underground Railroad Game.” Some black Friends at the Gathering took great umbrage at using the term “game” for an event associated with slavery, and in the resulting brouhaha the “game” was canceled. (383f)

Yet a nearly identical event was held at Baltimore Yearly Meeting two years later, introduced by a black person, and went off without a whisper of complaint. What accounted for this stark disparity of response? Was it somehow presented more acceptably? Or could it have simply been that different personalities with different points of sensitivity were involved? Who thus speaks for “the black community” among Friends? Who indeed? (The BYM event is described in its Yearbooks for 1996, p. 79, and 1997, p. 115. And this reviewer took part in it.)

This contrast points up a weakness of the later sections of the book. Differences among black leaders and thinkers are noted up to Washington and DuBois. There is very little if any reporting on the debates of the decades since the BEDC confrontation. There was debate among thoughtful blacks about Black Power; about affirmative action, the rise of “anti-racism,” and “cultural appropriation.” But little sign of these is found here; in my view this reflects an unfortunate atmosphere of repressive groupthink which has settled in among some segments of Quakerism, and not to its benefit.

By reporting on the earlier disputes, from the 1830s to the last decade, the authors have done good service. These accounts will be worth recalling when new debates appear, and white Friends are presented with new demands or spokespeople claiming to speak for “the black community” or some other ethnic group, and denouncing any question or challenge as inherently racist, glossing over or ignoring the wide diversity of view on most issues in actual communities of color, which continues. This groupthink needs to be named and broken up.

Thus the over-arching theme of ambiguity in the Quaker record emerges once again, as another mark of the authors’ achievement. And like the best landmarks, the book points beyond itself, both in terms of setting an agenda for future research, and in raising questions about its own categories. Indeed, not only is “the myth of racial justice,” exposed here, the book leads us to the brink of wondering whether its founding premise of racial categories is not likewise due for such searching re-examination.

Received racial discussions in the U.S. have been built on a black-white duality. These categories are by no means outmoded. Yet at the same time, they are also unmistakably breaking down. Numerous passages in Fit for Freedom recount the fear, often amounting to hysterical panic, among Quaker elders and schoolmasters, North and South, at the spectre of interracial sex and marriage, which is of a piece with wider white community attitudes.(cf., e.g.:186; 334f, 347-50)

Even so, this “unthinkable” has now become frequent enough that the US Census in 2010 will for the first time include a tabulation of “inter-racial” citizens. Several million already claimed such an identity in the 2000 Census, by checking more than one racial group box.

Among Friends as well, there are increasing numbers of persons who identify as multi-racial, and not simply either-or. The “multi-racial” reality is steadily elbowing its way into the company of other “ethnic” groups.

As this new stream expands and gains confidence, my strong suspicion is that future discussions of reigning myths in Quaker life and history will increasingly include a hard look at the “myths” of race themselves. How such a re-examination will re-interpret the history and themes of Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship I can’t venture to predict. But I look forward to it, because this much seems likely: one landmark will lead to another.


*Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship, Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice. Philadelphia: Quaker Press, 2008. 580 pages, paperback, $28.00

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