Watering Our Quaker Roots

St. James School music students at the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra 2019 gala. Photos courtesy of St. James School.

About a year ago, Monthly Meeting of Friends of Philadelphia (Pa.), better known by its location, Arch Street Meeting, made a grant of $50,000 to be paid in equal amounts over five years to St. James School. St. James School is a tuition-free, independent Episcopal middle school that provides students with year-round academic, physical, spiritual, and creative nourishment while working to uplift the surrounding Allegheny West neighborhood of Philadelphia.

The meeting’s corporate witness in 2020 was a return to a meeting action in 1770 adopting the proposal of meeting member Anthony Benezet to formally organize an “African School” or “School for Africans” as a division of Friends Public School. This proposal followed Benezet’s teaching of Black people beginning in 1750 while he was establishing the first public school for girls in North America. Public school at the time meant open to the public at no cost. His schooling of Black scholars was unfortunately necessary at the time to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the meeting that Black people were educable. It also appealed to the practical side of Friends. As W. E. B. DuBois observed: “Anthony Benezet and the Friends of Philadelphia have the honor of first recognizing the fact that the welfare of the State demands the education of Negro children.”

The grant to St. James School flows directly from a trust that was established by a member of Arch Street to remove barriers that might prevent Black scholars from attending Benezet’s school. Shortly after the school’s founding, Mary M. Johnson bequeathed $5,000 (the equivalent of $175,000 in current terms) to Arch Street Meeting to be held in trust for the school. Importantly, the trust deed stated:

I give and bequeath to “The School for Black People and Their Descendants” under the care of Friends of Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, 4th and Arch Street, said School located at Raspberry and Aurora Streets, Five thousand Dollars. I direct that so much of the income from said bequest as may be needed be applied during the inclement season to furnish suitable shoes and clothing to the very destitute scholars attending said School; with care not to create or encourage dependence.

Benezet left the school on a stable foundation at the time of his death in 1784. However, in 1818 the organization in Philadelphia of the First School District of Pennsylvania under board president Roberts Vaux, a Quaker who wrote a biography of Benezet, led to the establishment of a government-run “school for the instruction of colored youth” with over 200 pupils in 1822. Benezet’s school continued to operate into the twentieth century.

In more recent times, the meeting has made grants to local Friends schools that serve Black students such as Frankford Friends School and Friends Select School for tuition aid, as well as to the nonprofit Every Murder Is Real (EMIR) Healing Center, which was founded by a local Black Quaker and supports community members affected by homicide. However, in 2019, a member of Arch Street Meeting suggested that the meeting spend down the principal of the trust by proactively seeking organizations that serve deserving scholars who could benefit from grants provided.

The task of responding to the suggestion fell to the Educational Scholarship Committee of Arch Street Meeting. The clerk of the committee, Hazele Goodridge, detailed the factors we took into consideration during our discernment:

We recognized that while the proposed cause was a good one, it did not appear that it would fulfill the intent of the original bequest. This led the committee to a broader examination of the grants from the trust and whether there was an opportunity to improve on satisfying the intentions of the donor laid out in the trust deed and the vision of Benezet. These principles were: the grant be to a school (or organization); the aid designated for “Black People”; only the income be distributed; the grant would remove the impediment of inadequate clothing and shoes; and avoid dependence of recipients on the aid.

The Education Scholarship Committee wanted to ensure that the grant was spent as intended without a lot of administrative burden on the recipient school or the committee. One committee member had prior contact with two independent schools where the trust income would be spent most closely to the intent of the donor—on clothing and shoes for Black scholars from all poverty level households.

St. James School students in casual uniforms.

Ultimately, the committee settled on St. James School because of the quality of its program (100 percent of its graduates complete high school while its neighborhood schools are under 50 percent), the extended support that it provides its graduates through college, and the physical and psychologically uplift the community enjoys from a neighborhood school (all students walk to school). In November 2020, David Kasievich, the founding executive director and current head of school, attended a Zoom meeting for business, to acknowledge the generous gift, which will pay for both formal and casual uniforms for all students along with athletic wear for sports for the next five years. He explained the pedagogical basis of school uniforms:

St. James School students are growing up in North Philadelphia, where the downward pull of poverty has been felt for generations. Our purpose—and the greatest measure of our success—is empowering students to gain the knowledge, skills, confidence, and inner strength to forge their own upward path to the future they imagine. The ability to come proudly to school in a clean, attractive but modest St. James uniform contributes to the confidence and self-esteem needed to succeed.

Hazele Goodridge observed that the monthly meeting was pleased with the recommendation of the committee, and it has spurred others in the meeting to engage with St. James School. “I think both Mary M. Johnson and Anthony Benezet would agree that we’ve landed in a good place,” she said.

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