Witness to Quaker Racism: A Cautionary Tale

The standoff at the East Sandwich meetinghouse, photograph by Kay Brown. First published in 2007 in Freedom and the Justice Carrier of New England Yearly Meeting’s Committee on Racial, Social, and Economic Justice.

Frantz Fanon, the eminent psychiatrist and philosopher, observed that “racism objectifies,” or makes people into things. He identified a number of racist practices: infantilization, denigration, distrust, exclusion, rendering invisible, scapegoating, and violence. I experienced all of these within Sandwich Meeting on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, despite the fact that New England Yearly Meeting (NEYM) had recently approved a minute on racism.

I moved to Cape Cod in November 2002 and attended worship at East Sandwich Preparative Meeting. The Sandwich Monthly Meeting consists of three very old preparative meetings, since the 1600s—East Sandwich, West Falmouth, and Yarmouth. Their website describes them as “the oldest, continually organized, monthly meeting of the Religious Society of Friends–Quakers–in the United States.”

I was there in the Spring of 2004, when framed copies of the minute on racism were distributed. The clerk declared, “We don’t need this. We have no problem with racism here, do we Sharon?” and placed the minute face-down on a shelf. I didn’t share my opinion then, knowing Sandwich had not participated in the spiritual discernment process that  led to approving the minute. I decided not to engage in discussion about controversial issues in order to allow the meeting time to get to know me. I attended worship, monthly business meetings, and the Peace and Social Concerns Committee. Off the Cape, I attended New England Yearly Meeting’s Committee on Racial, Social, and Economic Justice and the Working Party on Racism.

Much of 2005 was taken up by supporting a local fisherman of the Wampanoag tribe after the Mashpee, Massachusetts, police beat him to a point where he could not support his family for many months. In the fall, I was nominated as clerk of East Sandwich’s Peace and Social Concerns Committee. The committee was clear that our social ministry would focus on local issues, poverty, and racism. That week there was a cross burning in front of an elementary school in Sandwich, the day after Governor Romney announced that Cape Cod would host hurricane Katrina survivors. Local police investigators declared it was not a hate crime. Cape Cod’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) did not agree, declaring that a cross burning is, by definition, a hate crime and should be treated as such.

East Sandwich’s Peace and Social Concerns Committee—the only one actually in Sandwich—chose to support the NAACP’s assertion, and sent a letter to the police chief in Sandwich, copied to the Cape Cod Times. Because time was of the essence, we consulted our elder and searched Faith and Practice to be sure there was nothing to prevent a Peace and Social Concerns Committee from sending a letter on a social concern in its own name. We sent it in the name of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Peace and Social Concerns Committee, East Sandwich; it was signed by me as clerk. East Sandwich business meeting was pleased to approve our letter, shortly after the fact. Then a few members of Falmouth Meeting were outraged when they saw our letter in the local press, and decided to write a contradictory letter saying, in essence, that there was no proof the cross burning was a hate crime. It was sent in the name of “The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Falmouth.”

The issue of contradictory letters came to a head at Sandwich Monthly Ministry and Counsel, which includes representatives from all three preparative meetings. It was decided that I had taken advantage of my position as clerk and was now a threat to Quaker unity. All copies of the contradictory letter vanished from the archives at the Cape Cod Times, where a member of the meeting is an editor. As the monthly meeting began to focus on me as the source of their trouble, I doubt it occurred to them that holding the one person of color among them responsible for their lack of unity, was problematic. Once they realized I would not be easily manipulated, hushed up, or intimidated, things began to get ugly.

Best described as “process violence,” Friends began to use Faith and Practice to intimidate and dominate me. It didn’t work, because I read Faith and Practice, too. The situation was escalating, so I began to write about my witness. I wrote to the Working Party on Racism, and to other self-described anti-racist Friends, in order to document what was happening and for my own protection. I asked all to hold us in the Light as we labored with one another. When Sandwich Meeting began to get inquiries from Friends as far afield as Atlanta, Georgia, they lost all pretence of civility.

After worship one potluck Sunday in June, an elder and I walked out on the front porch and joined a discussion about meeting politics with the clerk, treasurer, and a member of East Sandwich Ministry and Counsel. One Friend said to me in a condescending voice, “I think it’s time for you to go home now, Sharon,” and I responded, “I don’t think so.” When I reached for the door handle to go back inside, that Friend grabbed my wrist, and the other two blocked the door to bar me from entering. I got past them, into the foyer, but I was fuming. I remember saying aloud, “You do not have a right to put your hands on me!” Someone—I don’t remember who—told me I was being loud and that I should calm down or go outside.

I was angry, so I sat inside, away from people, and began to focus on breathing, grounding and centering myself. Another Friend invited me to go for a walk with her, and I agreed. When we walked across the doorsill onto the porch, the one who had grabbed my wrist said, “Don’t go far; the police are on their way.” I asked her, “Who called them? You?” And she said she had. I asked her, “What for?” And she said, “You assaulted me.” I was stunned. There was no point in saying more, so I walked away between two other Friends.

We got across the parking lot to the top of the driveway, when the first police car drove up Quaker Hill. It stopped in front of us. The officer stepped right up to me, shouted in my face, and told me to stay where I was. Then he went to confer with those Friends who had called the police over a difference of opinion. Two more police cars drove up, and I asked one of my companions to go see what was being said between the police officer and several members of the meeting, some of whom had come out when they saw three police cars blocking the driveway. After much animated discussion, the officer returned. In a more respectful tone, he told me I was being asked to leave the premises that afternoon and no charges would be filed. I asked him and he told me, the complaint filed was for disorderly conduct. Then he escorted me into the fellowship hall to get my purse, where no one looked at me or asked me if I was alright. It is important to say here, that no charges for assault were ever filed, as it would have been a false claim. I did not assault anyone, yet the three women involved in grabbing my arm and blocking the door spread the rumor that I had assaulted one of them. They said they “had to protect the meeting.”

At no time was there any discernment with the meeting as a whole or consultation with two other members of Ministry and Counsel present, as to proper recourse. Actions had been taken unilaterally by these three Friends, who included the clerk and treasurer. The following Tuesday, a certified letter came from the East Sandwich clerk, saying that “For the welfare of all concerned, it was decided” that I would “not attend any meeting functions until September 1,” at which time they would let me know, “what we will require from you for acceptable behavior.” It also said, “. . . if you chose to attend before the September 1 date the business meeting will consider legal action.”

I stayed away for two weeks, to give Friends time to come to their senses. Meanwhile, representatives from NEYM, came to worship with me in Mashpee. I felt a strong leading to return to worship at East Sandwich, yet knew that I should not go without creditable witnesses present. I had good reason for concern about the legal ramifications of my word against a group of angry white Quakers who had already falsely accused me of assault, and threatened me with legal action. So I invited NEYM Friends to worship with me at East Sandwich.

When I returned to worship earlier than expected, Friends took to physically barring me from worship. Those with me were allowed inside but I was not, so we stood outside during the hour of worship. I consistently called on the yearly meeting to help us stay in good order and for mutually agreed upon neutral parties to help facilitate a reconciliation process. Sandwich rejected “outside interference,” and came up with their own plan for “reconciliation” which included a requirement that I give up all committee work and come to worship without any outside supporters. They also expected me to apologize.

There were many meetings taken up with Sandwich Meeting’s concerns: preparative meetings, monthly meetings, quarterly meetings, even a called meeting of NEYM Ministry and Counsel. At that meeting, Friends who saw me as the problem were given the entire morning for their complaints. I was described as disruptive or abusive so many times that day I finally asked if Friends could give specific examples of my disruptive and abusive behavior, hoping that Ministry and Counsel would notice there was no evidence to support such wild allegations. The presiding clerk would not ask Friends to do this. That afternoon, I appealed directly to NEYM Ministry and Counsel for support. I said I didn’t trust Sandwich’s capacity to manage a reconciliation process without help and was told by the clerk that they “could not get involved unless the meeting was in unity about their involvement.” Furthermore, Sandwich  Meeting’s Ministry and Counsel had told yearly meeting representatives, that their “interference” in this matter was “disempowering” the local meeting and that they had not been “invited to intervene.”

At the 2006 sessions of New England Yearly Meeting, Sandwich sent Friends to stop me from continuing my yearly meeting committee work, to challenge the Working Party on Racism and the validity of the minute on racism. Their attempts to discredit me backfired. The nominating committee put my name forward as co-clerk of the Racial, Social, and Economic Justice (RSEJ) Committee and issued a formal apology to me at sessions. RSEJ said that in their view, the situation on Cape Cod was due to racism, in their annual report. Sandwich wanted it stricken from the record  but did not succeed. They said they were hurt by accusations of racism, and returned to Cape Cod with renewed commitment to get control of the situation.

Eventually, worship at “the oldest continually operating Quaker meetinghouse in North America” was suspended while Sandwich figured out what to do about Sharon Smith. One member took it upon herself to have the locks changed, and the clerks made it official. It remained closed until January 2007, after three of us were officially disowned. The final minute reads:

Sandwich Monthly Meeting (including its three Preparative Meetings) states itself free of responsibility for any statements that Rachel Carey Harper and Katherine Brown (members) and Sharon Smith (attender) may make or have made concerning Friends on Cape Cod. Those named are not in unity with the Meeting, and have not been for some time, and Sandwich Monthly Meeting’s life together and mission are suffering from their inappropriate behavior. Friends on Cape Cod have labored under this concern for years, as recorded in the minutes and letters to Ministry and Counsel (at Preparative and Monthly Meeting levels). A concern was also recorded at Sandwich Monthly Meeting for business in June 2001.

Attempts are ongoing by the Monthly and the Preparative Meetings to bring all parties into a sense of resolution, we encourage the above-mentioned Friends and attender to resolve to come under the tender care of the Meeting and its authority in this matter. Until that time comes, nothing these three individuals say necessarily reflects the Meeting’s considered judgement, and anything they say should be considered as personal and representing neither Sandwich Monthly Meeting, nor Quakerism as Sandwich Monthly Meeting has tried to live and understand itself.

We take this step with a heavy heart.

Thus we were read out of meeting, effectively silencing our ministries, for the time being.

The schism on Cape Cod led to the formation of two new meetings: Barnstable, founded by Kay, Rachel, and others from the East Sandwich Peace and Social Concerns Committee, and the Cuffee Meeting. The Cuffee Meeting was founded in the wake of the Quaker racial conflict on Cape Cod, as a safe place for people of color to worship in the manner of Friends. It is named after Paul Cuffee (1759–1817), a prominent Black-Wampanoag mariner and Friend, whose fortune helped to build the Westport meetinghouse. He is buried “just outside the back door” at Westport, because white Friends did not want him buried next to them. Both meetings still struggle with acceptance in Sandwich Quarter, without support from the quarter or NEYM, due to Friends’ reluctance to offend Sandwich.

I took many notes during this witness. They helped me stay grounded in the midst of what looked to me like hysteria. I also felt that much of what I witnessed would be unbelievable otherwise. My notes and assorted documents helped me analyze the experience and come to terms with it. I can look back and confirm that the shocking behavior of these Friends was indeed racism—defined as, racial prejudice plus institutional power—carried out by all the acts of racial objectification Fanon described.

My Friends, what sort of friendship is this? How can we presume to transform the world by our faith when we are unable or unwilling to be transformed ourselves? What good are declarations of intent, such as a minute on racism or repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, when they have no practical bearing on our actions—if we cannot or will not walk our talk?

Sharon Smith

Sharon Smith is a lifelong, Black-Indian Friend. She is a former clerk of the East Sandwich Preparative Meeting’s Peace and Social Concerns Committee and former co-clerk of the New England Yearly Meeting Racial Social and Economic Justice Committee. She is currently a member of the Cuffee Meeting and lives in western North Carolina and is at work on a book, Mixed Blessing: Growing Up Black-Indian and Quaker.