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Built by love? Excerpts on Quakers and race

Mural on the Women's Builiding, San Francisco
Mural on the Women's Builiding, San Francisco Photo: Lucy Duncan / AFSC

Quaker faith—like so many religions in this country—has often struggled to uphold its core commitment to peace and justice, particularly when it comes to race. Our historic institutions are deeply connected to the structures of power that have been built to oppress people of color for 500 years.  Although there are stories of Quakers and even Quaker communities acting boldly to support the abolition of slavery and assist those seeking refuge, Quakers have often slipped into a comfortable position of power within a White Supremacist society.  We have come so far, and are doing good work but there is so far yet to go.

Reading through the book Black Fire: African American Quakers on spirituality and human rights, I was struck by the similarities between the experience of these African Americans Quakers in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and the challenges that are faced by African American Quakers to this day. 

The Quakers featured in this collection are powerful, deep and unafraid to speak truth to power. 

George Sawyer (1924-2002), a lawyer and Quaker, held various positions at the American Friends Service Committee, and was the Director of Urban and Black Studies at Earlham College.  He challenged Quakers again and again, including this article in Quaker Life titled, “The Stranger among you,” to emerge from behind their wall of silence and consensus to speak out against the discrimination and racism within the Quaker world and society at large.Arch Street Meeting in Philadelphia. Photo by Lucy Duncan.

Mahala Ashley Dickerson (1912-2007), was also a lawyer in both Alabama and Alaska, the first African American woman to be admitted to the Alabama Bar in 1948, and was the first African American woman to practice law in Alaska.  Dickerson became a Quaker after World War II, and continued to be involved in many landmark Civil Rights cases throughout her career.  This excerpt from her autobiography, “Delayed Justice for Sale,” illustrates both her love for and deep disappointment with the Quaker faith.

What might it mean to move forward as a community committed to being faithful to the divine spark in every human being?  How should that influence our actions towards those inside and “outside” of our formal institutions?  What is our role in changing the racist structures that allow inequality to persist in this country?

George E. Sawyer

The Stranger among You

Shock waves may rumble through the White conscience of this assemblage, and some of you may rise up in righteous indignation, but I challenge you to deny that your own forefinger gave aid, assistance and comfort to the assassin as he lined his sight and pulled the trigger that started the missile that forever silenced the voice of the Black prophet of love [Martin Luther King, Jr.].

I cannot help but be reminded of a call that I received some years ago from the president of the Richmond, Indiana, Human Relations Council.  She was also a chairman of the Social Concerns Committee of her Meeting. I was advised that the house next door to her was up for sale and the owner was willing to sell it to a Negro. I advised her that my wife and I would be happy to look at the house.

Recently built Chestnut Hill Meeting in Philadelphia. Photo by Lucy Duncan.The next evening she called and asked us not to come. Her neighbor on the other side of the empty house did not approve and would break all relations with her if she encouraged me to buy the house. This was a blatant condonation of racism.  She tearfully chose, however, to submerge her religiosity in the stagnant tank of racism in order to keep the friendship of a racist.

I hear anxious voices crying out to me: “But, George, we have been to the ghetto and visited the residents thereof. We clothed them when they were naked, we fed when they hungered, we visited them when they were in jail, as a matter of fact we went to jail with them.” To which I answer how difficult it is for White American to understand.

Mahala Ashley Dickerson

The World of Religion

One of my greatest sources of happiness in Alaska has been attending the very small silent meetings held at various places in Anchorage, Wasilla, Fairbanks, and Palmer. To watch a meetinghouse being humbly built from the ground up, with no fanfare and with everyone putting in at least one nail, was an inspiring sight. It stands unfinished, but love built it, and somehow I feel love will finish it. It is not what George Fox, founder of Quakerism, would call a “steeple house” to which I had been denied membership. Several years later, however, I was to be rendered a blow by two white male members indicating racism lurking even in this little haven.

I often wonder how much harm religion has done the world. My attraction to Quakerism was based largely on its simplicity and what I have perceived as its sincerity, although years of worship in various Quaker settings taught me that it too has blind spots. There are those who are drawn to it because of the fact that it attracts relatively few, which gives it a certain snob value. Of course, this was never the intent of the original movement.