My Experience as an African American Quaker

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Part I

The concern I have is to express my experiences as an African American Quaker and also to be believed. This story began long, long ago when our country’s policy supported the system of buying and selling Africans for profit. Black, Native American, and white abolitionists worked together on the Underground Railroad. From 1852 to 1865, Quaker abolitionists Thomas and Hannah Atkinson’s farmhouse, located in Maple Glen, Pennsylvania, was used as an Underground Railroad station. Many fleeing runaways were helped by them to get to northern states or Canada. The former Atkinson farmhouse is still in use today as the Upper Dublin School District administration offices. This building still contains some of those secret places where terrorized fugitives were hidden. Adjacent to the farm is the Upper Dublin meetinghouse and graveyard. The Atkinsons were members here. When runaways died on this branch of the Underground Railroad, they were buried secretly at night in the meetinghouse graveyard because the law prohibited any assistance to runaways. I personally admire the people who risked their lives being abolitionists because they could have been imprisoned for assisting runaways. Both Thomas and Hannah Atkinson are buried in the meetinghouse graveyard along with many of the people that died seeking freedom.

I began to attend Quaker worship at Upper Dublin Meeting at a difficult time in my life in 2009 when I needed a quiet place to connect with God. I am the only African American member the meeting has ever had. This meeting is a very old one which usually has less than ten in attendance each Sunday. Many of the members are descendants of Hannah and Thomas Atkinson. I was in awe when I became aware a few years ago that enslaved people were buried in a section of our meeting’s graveyard. I knew that Quakers were abolitionists in the era of slavery in America, but this concrete evidence of our history had a powerful impact on me. I knew this was sacred ground because the sacrifice of my ancestors held in bondage made it possible for all African Americans to be free. These historic heroes were never mourned, never had their voices heard or their place in history truly recognized. They deserve to be remembered and commemorated. It makes me proud to know that the religion that I converted to was a part of the anti-slavery movement.

My leading from God is to do everything in my power to protect the earthly remains of the enslaved African Americans interred in the Upper Dublin meetinghouse graveyard. I have taken this leading personally because these are my ancestors. At a meeting for business, I learned that my meeting was making plans to sell the plots where they knew the enslaved African Americans were buried. I thought that was a desecration of my ancestors’ final resting place. How would you like it if someone disturbed the remains of your loved ones?

This is what my leading has accomplished so far:

  • On Saturday, February 9, 2013, a memorial service was held in the Quaker manner for the interred enslaved African Americans.
  • On Saturday, February 16, 2013, a second memorial service was held.
  • In March 2013, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission designated this place as a Pennsylvania Historical Site. The placement of this Pennsylvania historical marker, recalling what happened here during the era of slavery in the United States, is pending.
  • Starting with the 2013-2014 school year, the Upper Dublin School District in Montgomery County made this significant local history part of their social studies curriculum. Before doing this, the district had instituted a community-wide diversity program for community residents, and all school staff, including librarians, cafeteria workers, maintenance crew, bus drivers, teachers, and administrators, so that they could implement this new curriculum with sensitivity. All of this was done under the leadership of Dr. Michael Pladus, a Japanese American superintendent. In this way with this new curriculum, all students can gain a more complete understanding of American history. I was unable to do this when I was a student in the district in the 1960s and 1970s.

On October 26, 2013, the dedication ceremony was held for the graciously donated granite memorial marker where the enslaved African Americans’ graves are. The Upper Dublin School District, including students, their parents, and the superintendent all participated in this celebration. The marker inscription reads:

IN HONOR OF THOSE KNOWN ONLY TO GOD / THE BRAVE AFRICAN AMERICAN MEN, WOMEN, AND CHILDREN TRAVELING ON THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD WHO DIED SEEKING FREEDOM / 1852–1864

The three well-attended services that we held at Upper Dublin were multiracial, intergenerational, and interdenominational gatherings of folks who were profoundly moved and freely spoke of their deepest feelings. It has been a great honor to be able to remember my ancestors from the time of slavery in America in this way.

By being awarded a Pennsylvania historical marker for this site, a page has been put in our nation’s history. This is a remarkable achievement.

Part II

Enslaved people had to hide in the daytime and travel by night, so as not to be caught. There is a story that I read about the Underground Railroad that still haunts me; it’s about a woman with her children. One night when this woman stepped away from her children suddenly a predatory panther took one of her children away. She could hear the cries of her child as he was being eaten. Then there was silence.

My experience at Upper Dublin Meeting is not a happy story, but it is a consequence of slavery.

The unfortunate racial hatred that my meeting members have directed toward me because of this project has made a hostile environment, so it is impossible for me to attend weekly meetings for worship. But, in order to carry out the work of my leading, I need to go to business meetings. Since March 2014, my quarter and yearly meetings have arranged for my safety to have two Quakers from other meetings accompany me for meetings for worship for business to carry out my leading.

One true example of verbal abuse directed at me by a meeting member occurred just before worship started one Sunday. We were taking our usual places on the benches, and a member walked up to me as I was sitting ready to worship, and said, “I don’t want to sit near you. Get up, and go sit in the back somewhere.” This intimidation didn’t work on me. I didn’t move.

Another time a generous member of the meeting offered to cater the repast after the memorial service. I took this to business meeting and was told no; the African American guests would not be fed in the meetinghouse. Finally, after a lot of frustrating discussion, the meeting agreed to serve only cookies and juice to our guests.

The meeting has withheld the contributions made for this project, so there are outstanding bills.

As a group, we went out to the graveyard and agreed on a spot to place the memorial marker which was donated by a local company. After taking pictures and measuring where the memorial marker would be placed, I informed the Graveyard Committee that I wanted to be there when the marker was installed to take pictures of the installation, and make sure that no bones were uncovered. However, that didn’t happen. No one from my meeting informed me that the stone had been installed. A neighbor who lives near the meetinghouse called and told about some activity in the graveyard. I went over and found the marker installed about four feet nearer to the wall at the back of the graveyard, not at the spot that we had all agreed on. I was very angry. Everyone knew how important this memorial marker for my ancestors was to me.

When Upper Dublin fourth grade teachers asked to bring their classes to visit the meetinghouse and memorial marker during February, Black History Month, the meeting didn’t think Black History Month was important, so they took no action. The students’ visit happened in June, just before the end of the school year.

At the last meeting that I attended of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Ministry for Racial Justice and Equality, hosted at my home, the clerk of Upper Dublin Meeting at that time who was also a member of this group turned to me and said that white people are more civilized than black people. It was as if the ceiling had opened up and dropped ice water on me. I was speechless. To add insult to injury, neither the clerk of the Ministry, nor the other members of the group sitting there, all of whom were white, said anything. The insult went right over their heads. After the meeting was over and everybody left my home, I immediately wrote a letter of resignation to the clerk of this group. Later one member of the group called me and apologized. This incident made it extremely difficult for me to interact at Upper Dublin Meeting to carry out my leading to honor my ancestors since I had to take everything through the clerk.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission approved this site at Upper Dublin Meeting as an historical site back on March 26, 2013. There is paperwork that has to be finalized by the meeting so the roadside Pennsylvania marker can be permanently placed. As yet, more than a year later, no action has been taken by the meeting. If we don’t take action soon, this distinguished award will be forfeited.

The most serious incident that I have experienced took place during our worship hour one morning in February: I was moved by the Spirit to stand to share a message that had come to me, but before I could say a word, a member jumped up and said, “Shut up, you are a bum! I don’t want you in this meeting any more. Get out!” I was so astonished at these hateful remarks that I picked up my pocketbook, and as I was leaving I paused and said to each and every one there, “You see what is happening, and you say nothing? That makes you just as bad.” Then I told them, “God will get you for this.” And I left and drove home. How humiliating it was to be run out of my meetinghouse! Later, I found out that they had called the police and told them I had made a terroristic threat, which I did not.

There are members of my meeting who would like my membership taken away from me. I feel as if I am desperately fighting for my very soul and my right to worship at my own meeting.

Part III

Where is God here? Historically injustice and inequality have been a part of American society and of the Religious Society of Friends. This situation at Upper Dublin Meeting is horrible. Obviously, if these incidents happened to a white Quaker, things would be a lot different. Sadly, the kinds of things that happened to me in my meeting continue to happen to Quakers of color in other meetings. This makes me feel frustrated, marginalized, and alienated. A faith community is supposed to be a nurturing place whose members should not tolerate such hateful actions.

Query: Does your faith community face the need of having honest and open discussions about the legacy of slavery with all its hurtful facets? Can we accept the strong feelings that will arise from these discussions?

Query: Is your faith community prepared to work with your local community to create a racially diverse and equal society?

Query: As a Friend would you allow another individual to insult, demean, hurt, or exclude another from his or her worship? How can people just stand there and let bad things happen?

God has given me the leading to do this work. God is real to me. If God asks me to do something, He expects me to do it to the best of my ability because He said, “I will never forsake you.” The legacy that I want to pass on to future generations does not include hatred.

Where, as a Quaker, do you personally stand on this issue, and where do I go from here?

 


Updates: 

  • Historical Marker Unveiled (9/28/14)
    • On September 28th Upper Dublin (Pa.) 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. The AFSC’s Acting in Faith blog covered the unveiling.
  • The clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Jada S. Jackson, responds (10/9/14)
    • “As clerk, I am concerned with the spiritual state of the entire meeting. When we become a member of Religious Society of Friends we commit ourselves not just to our monthly meeting but to a communion of Friends seeking that of God in everyone. This community, as the individuals within it, is imperfect. Yet we obligate ourselves to love each other.”
  • Members of Upper Dublin Meeting respond (12/1/14)
    • A letter from a group of Friends in Upper Dublin came to us from the co-clerks of the meeting and represents an informal collective response from some meeting members who felt concern with this article.