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Souls on the line: Abolishing slavery then, undoing racism today

Avis at the unveiling of the historical marker
Avis at the unveiling of the historical marker Photo: Vanessa Julye / Vanessa Julye

Note: On September 28th Upper Dublin Friends Meeting of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting celebrated the unveiling of a Pennsylvania Historic marker which honored the lives of Thomas and Hannah Atkinson, members of the meeting who offered safe haven on the underground railroad. Avis McClinton, a member of the meeting, was instrumental in having a marker placed which recognized and remembered the formerly enslaved African Americans who lost their lives while seeking freedom and were buried in the cemetery in unmarked graves next to the meeting house. She also worked hard with others in the meeting to secure the historic marker, which commemorates the Atkinson family’s support of those traveling on the Underground Railroad, but also recognizes Hannah and Thomas’ son Wilmer who was the founder of Farm Journal.

Historic marker is unveiledThe ceremony itself was very moving. It included the below statement by Avis, a talk by Sam Lemon, descendants of Hannah and Thomas, a few words from the current CEO of Farm Journal, and a young Atkinson descendant singing, “Imagine.” 

All photos are by Vanessa Julye or me. - Lucy

This is the place where I worship.

It was here that God spoke to me, and gave me my calling-- my leading-- to protect the earthly remains of my ancestors, the heroic African Americans travelling on the Underground Railroad who died seeking freedom. Can you see the majesty of God’s love today, and his power and glory? - us being together - different races and different religions celebrating and remembering the long-forgotten people buried in this graveyard.

Without a doubt, slavery was the most barbaric time in America’s history. The harsh reality is that the birthright of slavery for European Americans is the wealth they have gained from the centuries of free labor of African Americans who were held in bondage. And at the same time, the legacy of slavery for African Americans is still an uneven playing field, stereotyping, and prejudice.

Why do you think God brought us here on this historic day?

Historic marker unveiledIn the days of the Underground Railroad people of all backgrounds – African-Americans, European Americans, Native Americans – all worked together to put an end to slavery. Let’s take the lesson from our collective ancestors, and work together to start a dialogue about our differences and our alikeness. We are all stakeholders in this. The race problem has put a rent in the fabric of our nation. Slavery was abolished. Can’t racism be abolished too? Just like slavery was a hard issue for our forefathers, racism is a hard issue for us today.

Hannah and Thomas Atkinson knew that holding human beings in bondage was wrong. They knew that their souls were on the line if they did not act, just like I knew that my soul was on the line when God gave me this leading to protect my ancestors.

In honor of those known only to GodI am blown away at the fact that that there are so many Quaker Meeting houses that have graveyards like this one with our African American ancestors buried in them. Quakers interred enslaved and free people in their graveyards, and reserved space there for that purpose, when no others would allow it. I am happy that our Meeting has a headstone in honor of the freedom seekers known only to God who are buried here. Please take time to visit this historical site.

Now my leading has turned to identifying and researching these Meeting houses all over the United States and Canada, and creating a comprehensive data base of them, so that future scholars will have access to this valuable information to create a truer picture of the Black experience in America.

In friendship,
Avis Wanda McClinton, A Child of God

About the Author

Avis Wanda McClinton is a resident of Glenside, Pa., in Upper Dublin Township. She is a board member of the Grandom Insitution, a grant making project of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.

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