In 2015, the Quaker project Honoring Those Known Only To God (see related article on the Honoring Project) convened for the first time. It brought together a multiracial, class-diverse group of Friends who wanted to remember the lives of nearly forgotten African Americans—both Quaker and non-Quaker—buried in Quaker burial grounds. So many of these graves are unmarked and therefore go unrecognized and stay unseen. These were and are children of God. And even when the names of those buried are known, they stay unnamed in many meetings. This is likely due to the early Quaker practice of having no headstones. The continued erasure in particular of these individuals of African descent and the unwillingness by some to devote time, funds, or energy to correcting or updating a small, significant piece of history is in part due to unintended racism among Friends.
Since 2013, at least two Quaker meetings in the eastern United States have already held meetings for worship for memorial for those buried without recognition, centering on black lives, known and unknown. Other Quaker communities are considering doing the same. Members of the Honoring Project’s committee have assisted certain meetings in their preparations and in their commemorations.
The Honoring Project has gained clearness that this work among Friends is needed to honor and repair harm done to African Americans who suffer enormous hardship due to institutional racism. The purpose of the work is also to honor their ancestors, and to name and accept responsibility for racist acts carried out by U.S. Friends of European descent from hundreds of years ago and from today. Through the honoring and the naming, we as Friends may begin to heal our present situation.
The caretaker of Abington (Pa.) Meeting recently discovered old records that had the notation “COL” written next to 66 names of people who were buried in the unmarked burial grounds of the meeting. Later, the caretaker learned that those three letters referred to “colored.” Liz Oppenheimer, clerk of the Honoring Those Known Only to God project, interviewed Abington Meeting’s clerk, George Schaefer, about how the meeting proceeded to revise its history.
Liz Oppenheimer: What is the current practice of Quaker burials and stewardship of burial grounds at Abington Meeting? Why don’t Friends have or call these burial sites cemeteries or graveyards?
George Schaefer: For early Friends, graveyards were associated with membership in the parish church. They were “members only” burial places, if you will, attached to the church or steeplehouse. As dissenters to the established church, and the sacred vs. profane thinking that went along with orthodox Christianity, Quakers believed that a burial ground could be located anywhere that was peaceful and serene: an old orchard or an open field. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (Ps. 24:1), and no place can be more sacred than any other. When there was a need for a plot, Friends provided it alongside those provided to meeting members. This included Native Americans, enslaved and freed persons of African descent, poor European settlers, and indentured servants without family to see to their burial.
Cemeteries are a later cultural development. They are not associated with a particular church so much as with a religious orientation or denomination. They are also maintained as quasi-parks with landscaping and grounds maintenance. They are not simple affairs.
I like using the term “burial ground” because it helps us to adhere to the original meaning and intent of where Quakers chose to bury their dead and who they invited to lie next to them, so to speak. Today, we would call the Quaker approach to interring a body in the ground a “green burial” because it is earth friendly and does not scar the land for generations, as does an embalmed corpse in a lead-lined casket placed in a cement burial vault, with the grounds being perpetually cared for by a maintenance crew.
Was there concern raised in breaking from the practice of plain burials to put up a plaque or in breaking from Abington’s unprogrammed worship to have worship that included a planned program of speakers and tributes?
There was tension around correcting what happened in the past by the placing of a headstone. That was seen to be out of keeping with the simplicity of a Quaker burial ground. After much discussion, the meeting agreed to erect a plaque at the entrance to the burial ground. Other challenges were finding the money to create and erect the plaque and reaching unity on the exact wording for it. Did we know for sure that formerly enslaved persons were buried at Abington? We didn’t want to claim this if we weren’t sure of who was buried among what we knew to be unmarked burial sites. The funds were put up by an individual member of European descent who has a lifelong concern for the civil rights of African Americans. So the stumbling block was more to do with a lack of continuity in our burial records, and our need to be historically accurate in the wording of our memorial plaque. Once our lost records were discovered, way opened to act with confidence and unity.
The project Honoring Those Known Only To God was begun by and is part of the ministry of African American Friend Avis Wanda McClinton. What role did she have as Abington Friends began developing its memorial meeting for worship?
As a group composed largely of persons of European descent, we did not at first grasp the impact of having something revealed that has been hidden about our history. African American history—especially colonial and early American history—had been systematically erased, not only from the consciousness of the majority of Americans and Quakers but from the landscape as well. Discovering that persons of African descent lived, worked, raised families, and overcame tremendous obstacles merely to survive, and then for hundreds of years were buried among Friends and often as members of the meeting is a big deal. It is a big deal for people of color in our community.
Many of us didn’t realize at first the importance of this discovery. As European Americans we are surrounded by artifacts and monuments to white history. We take these things for granted. For persons of African descent, however, finding the thread of the longer story of their history on this continent and as part of this country is a struggle. Our consultation with Avis Wanda McClinton helped us to gain a new perspective on not only the importance of this discovery but its relevance to the larger community of which we are a part. Most importantly, Avis opened our eyes to the potential for bringing people together across racial divides and creating an event, a worshipful memorial meeting in which to begin healing the distances between us. We had been together as friends at one time; let’s get together again.
When I was young, I was told that the reason my meeting was not more diverse was because Quaker meeting—especially the east coast silent worship variety—didn’t appeal to people who were not of European background. We know now that this is just not true.
Did the memorial meeting have any impact on the overall life of the meeting?
Yes it did. We have grown and learned that our history needs to be revised. It is a revision that sheds an unflattering light on our past, one which exposes our historical shortcomings as a religious community committed to equality and answering that of God in everyone. But this correction is necessary if we are to begin to heal as a community. Our work for racial justice must be grounded in truth if we are to carry our witness forward.
We have African American people and families in our meeting, many of whom participated in the memorial meeting. For me, the participation in the worship and the program of the young Friends in high school of African descent and European descent was especially poignant. We’re not only memorializing those buried among us of African and Native descent and the poor—both Friends and non-Friends—but we are acknowledging that these folks are part of our family. They are a part of our common ancestry and part of the ground we stand on. For me, this acknowledgement begins to heal the loss and damage to our collective soul caused by racism, ignorance, and fear.
I understand that part of that revision includes information about early Friends at Abington?
In the spring, we invited a scholar of American history, Marcus Rediker of the University of Pittsburgh, who is writing a book about the early-eighteenth-century English Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Lay, to give a talk at meeting about his research. Marcus mentioned in his talk that he had discovered that some of the early members of Abington Meeting at the time of Benjamin Lay were indeed profiting from the transatlantic slave trade.
In fact, in our records, Benjamin Lay’s name has the initials “DO” after it, an indication that he had been formerly disowned by the meeting. As a DO, he could come to worship but would not be allowed to speak to matters of business, nor would the meeting unite behind his abolitionist leading. Lay is also buried at the Abington Friends burial ground. He was buried in an unmarked plot somewhere at the top of the slope that leads down to the creek where the persons of African descent were buried. Lay and the folks of African descent were placed in undesirable plots at the edges of the burial ground which is most likely symbolic of Friend’s attitudes to these people in those times.
The revision of history that is happening is our dedication to our historic commitment to equality. This testimony is something that we have been working toward, a work in progress. Work needs to continue to be done on making the world a more equitable place, especially for African Americans.
What is emerging at this time?
I think that what is emerging is the understanding that the best way for white Friends to create more diverse communities is to actively reach out to the wider community (and conversely, to welcome inquiry of our practices and traditions), to other people of faith and good will. In many cases, we are often already engaged in this work, but we need to think of it differently. The idea that Quakerism is a private faith—something we do with each other—is something that is slowly changing. Abington Meeting has a long-standing relationship with a nearby black church that supports a ministry of feeding the poor. I wonder, however, if we’ve really considered how we can join with this community in ways that help us to learn how to decentralize whiteness and truly understand the relationship between racism and poverty.
What suggestions do you have for another meeting that wants to pull together an event that honors the lives of nearly forgotten African Americans who were enslaved?
I think a certain fearlessness is required, first of all. As American Quakers of European descent, we have an image of ourselves that is naïve and disingenuous. As Quakers, we like to think of ourselves as innocent of any historical wrongs. We’re only too happy to regress to a hazy state of moral perfection when it comes to the terrible injustices perpetrated in the name of our country, let alone our meetings. So looking without defensiveness or fragility at the sometimes ignoble relationships of meeting members to people of African descent would be a good place to start. Quakers were good record keepers. Are we willing to scrupulously search our records for these connections?
I personally found the book Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice by Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye enormously helpful in creating a context within which to think about the forgotten lives of African Americans, both enslaved and freed persons, who had relationships with Quakers at Abington Meeting. Having this historical context helped me to think more honestly about our past and to find a vision for the future. Because to my mind, this is what an event does that honors the lives of the forgotten African Americans: it creates a path into the future. It is a way forward that takes us from innocence to experience, from forgetfulness to remembrance, and then hopefully from naïveté to wisdom.