Category Archives: Black & White & Other Colors

Snow Camp & The Underground Railroad – Beyond Mythmaking

At Snow Camp we’re working at broadening the vision that created our acclaimed historical drama, Pathway to Freedom, to bring out more awareness of our practical connections to the actual Underground Railroad.

I admit, though, that sometimes I’m tempted to believe, as one prominent historian has argued, that the “Underground Railroad” (UGRR) is mainly a myth, spun into heroic proportions on legends, that serve mainly to puff up self-serving white people’s memories.

Salem Chapel, St. Catharines, Ontario CANADA: a terminus for successful UGRR journeys.

And surely there has been a lot of myth-making about it, feeding white rescue fantasies, which has deservedly been deflated by recent revisionist research.

But even after discounting the expansionist folklore, I haven’t been able to dismiss this saga — not since I visited this church, the Salem Chapel in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, only a few miles beyond the U.S. border at Niagara Falls.

The modest people of Salem Chapel are the descendants of many intrepid men and women who made this long and often terrifying  journey and succeeded. More than twenty such settlements of freed peoples’ were planted along the southern end of Ontario, stretching 250-plus miles from Buffalo to the lakeside city of Windsor, just a short ferry (or clandestine canoe) ride from Detroit. Many thousands of enslaved people showed the grit and stamina to start and finish their incredible journeys. (Many thousands more, truth be told, tried and failed, and usually paid a terrible price.)

Harriet Tubman statue, outside the St. Catharines school named for her.

Among the early worshipers at Salem Chapel was Harriett Tubman,. She led several parties there, and stayed on for most of the 1850s, when she was being hunted below the border. She returned south when the Civil War began, to undertake more exploits for the Union war effort.

Moreover, alternatives to the white savior UGRR plotline have been around for a long time, if too-long neglected. One of the best was also the earliest, by William Still of Philadelphia.

He had been a key figure in that city’s Vigilance Committee, which aided a great many successful slave escapes, and in 1872 he published the first detailed, documented account of his work and that of the Philadelphia underground.

Still’s  book is a landmark, and available free online, in full.) Further, Still’s view of the struggle was proudly Black-centered, as is evident right from his book’s title page:

Title page, “The Underground Rail Road,” by William Still, 1872.

Yet he was also forthright and even generous in acknowledging the active and sustained assistance his committee had from numerous activist whites, many of whom also took substantial risks. Among the white supporters, none outnumbered Quakers or former Quakers.

So William Still’s Underground Railroad was a Black initiative, built on and energized by the desire and action of the enslaved to break from bondage, but many were not entirely alone in the effort. And as Still’s 780 pages of dense text showed, there was plenty of joint initiative to recount.

The most complete recent history of the UGRR, Bound for Canaan by Fergus Bordewich, reflects a similar pattern, only painted on a much broader canvas: where William Still focused on Philadelphia; Burdewich points out that what was then called the “Northwest” (now the Midwest), was criss-crossed by an equally, if not more important group of UGRR pathways, particularly in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, routes ultimately terminating in Canada.

These are rough reconstructions of the major eastern routes; many more went across the midwest to Detroit, at the western edge of southwest Ontario.

It’s about 700 miles from Salem Chapel in Ontario to Snow Camp, North Carolina —  as the Canadian geese flocks fly; on the ground it’s many more. Hard miles, through forests, winding through mountains and crossing rivers, in all kinds of weather, hungry and hunted.  Here in Snow Camp, what we know of the UGRR is mostly folklore, but still it fits with these big-picture accounts, though with plenty of local twists.

For one thing, it’s right in the thick of a “Quaker hotbed” that was almost a century old in the years leading up to the Civil War, and which survived the fighting, despite losing many members in treks west, to Indiana and other non-slave states.

The big red area is our “Quaker hotbed” in the Carolina Piedmont. Snow Camp is at the tip of the yellow arrow. Greensbro, at the blue arrow, was the main “transfer point” for journeys to the north, toward Philadelphia, New York and Canada. Many escapees had to do much of the trek on foot.

This meant there were many potential UGRR sympathizers around Snow Camp– though they kept a low profile. After all, while the UGRR was controversial in the North, it was criminally illegal in the South: a number of white sympathizers were caught at it in the South and served long prison terms; more than one died in jail.

In this tense atmosphere, UGRR work was kept both secret and carefully compartmentalized: most participants only knew where the next next stopping place was, and often were unaware of who operated it. The renowned UGRR tree near the Guilford College campus is a good example: nestled in a thick woods, which tree was it?

The woods near Guilford College. Now, let’s see: was it THIS big tree, or maybe THAT one over there? Or the one we passed awhile back?

Thus, if seized by the patrollers or the sheriff, “conductors” could give truthful (or nearly truthful), yet minimally informative answers.

So there are very few concrete records. (Levi Coffin, originally from Greensboro, described some of his forays in his memoirs– online here in full — many years after the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished.) Yet local historians at the Friends meetings near Snow Camp have long asserted that area Quakers were active in UGRR efforts.

Characters from the abolitionist novel “UncleTom’s Cabin” were adapted to fit larger social images. Here is a playbill, featuring runaway Eliza from the story, with her baby, crossing a frozen river pursued by hounds.
Here is Eliza in another period illustration, crossing the river carefully garbed as a proper Victorian lady, and so fair of hue that who would suspect her of being “black”?

Even so, Quakers were a suspect minority as far as local authorities were concerned, on a subject which frequently evoked actual violence.  Thus habits of concealment, and what spies call “cut-outs” and “drops” were key tools for UGRR work in this area.

In addition to preparing the 25th season of Pathway to Freedom, the only ongoing play about the UGRR, we hope to soon be able to make use of our historic buildings and artifacts to illustrate the day-to-day reality of life in a seemingly quiet but inwardly turbulent slave society. Watch this space for more details as they develop, And we ask again that our supporters send donations soon, so we can meet the high expenses of season preparation. 

Donations are welcome via a secure online link here:

http://bit.ly/2klVgpy
For regular mail, make checks to:
Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre
P. O. Box 535
Snow Camp NC 27349

PS. A reminder: our local auditions will take place at the Drama site [301 drama Rd., Snow Camp] on  Wednesday March 14, noon to 5 PM, and Thursday March 15, 3PM to 8 PM. Make appointments by email at: info@nullsnowcampoutdoortheatre.com

 

 

 

 

The Deaths Of Racism, And Racism In Deaths

Charlottesville VA – I came here for a panel on Dr. King’s Ill-fated Poor Peoples Campaign of 1968, 50 years past and now aiming to be re-launched.

Charlottesville’s Lee, the (somewhat) hidden monument.

I did my part in the event (having written a book about the 1968 campaign); but I want to admit here that my mind frequently wandered, hankering to head downtown to visit some of Charlottesville’s new & newly-more historic sites while I was nearby.

Two in particular: the shrouded statue of Robert E. Lee, awaiting its fate, and a few blocks away the graffiti wall on the stretch of 4th Street now rechristened “Heather Heyer Way.”

Late that rainy afternoon, the panel finished, and the chance came. My activist photographer friend Laura from Toronto, also a panelist, felt a similar urge, and soon we were in “Emancipation (neé Lee) Park” clicking away.  Continue reading The Deaths Of Racism, And Racism In Deaths

Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes–Sing us a bit of your famous Blues!

From Not Without Laughter, by Langston Hughes

It’s Langston Hughes’s birthday (Feb. 1, 1902- May 22, 1967). Known primarily as a poet, Hughes was a versatile writer: by his mid-twenties he had published challenging essays in national periodicals, and two books of poetry. I’m now reading his first novel, Not Without Laughter, published in 1930, when he was 28.

This passage evokes a domestic scene in a small Kansas city, modeled on Lawrence, where Hughes spent several boyhood years. Hughes was proud of his humble roots, and the creativity it wrung from hardship, like the largely homemade blues songs by the itinerant laborer Jimboy. Here he has returned after a long absence seeking work. In Hughes’s prose, we can hear the poetry woven through it.

Continue reading Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes–Sing us a bit of your famous Blues!

A Year of #45. My Year of Resistance.

During the past year, resistance took many forms, and cropped up in many places. It was also exhausting and resisters took many hits. And the struggle(s) are far from over.

I tried to do my share. And in an effort to keep up my own spirits, and maybe offer some tidbits of encouragement to others,  I’ve assembled this personal scrapbook. In the age of phone cameras, such documentation has become much easier. If others are moved to share theirs, I look forward to sampling them.

And it all started, of course, before the new year. After November 8, 2016, like many others, I spent many days reenacting this famous painting of “The Scream,” aloud,  silently, and in between. I don’t know if it helped or not. Denial is more than a river in Egypt. But then . . . Continue reading A Year of #45. My Year of Resistance.

Lucretia Mott’s Birthday Secret: No Woman Is an Island?

What “secret” am I talking about here? Lucretia Mott with a secret?

For her devotees, Lucretia Mott’s life is, or should be, an open book: born into a loving, encouraging family, married for 57 years to what one biographer called “the best husband ever”; she had a long public career of preaching and speaking, of which generous samplings have been preserved; and she wrote hundreds of letters which scholars have combed through. She endured sorrows: the loss of two of her six children, and then widowhood; and she overcame years of withering criticism of her ideas and “heresies.”

Lucretia! You really believed this stuff??

 None of that is new, or unexamined. And in her personal carriage she was a model of traditional Quaker propriety: she disdained novels as frivolous and vain; it was husband James who sat in a quiet corner, burning the midnight oil, unable to put down Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Then, while Hicksites all around were shedding the grey and the bonnet, she was plain til the very end. Continue reading Lucretia Mott’s Birthday Secret: No Woman Is an Island?

Lucretia Mott’s Birthday is Coming Soon! (On Wednesday, In Fact)

Yes, Lucretia would be 225 years old on January 3, 2018. 

And who was Jane Johnson, and why was she racing down Philadelphia streets  in a coach with Lucretia Mott in September of 1855? And why were federal marshals trying to catch them??

And why did Johnson run through Mott’s house and out the back door?

Continue reading Lucretia Mott’s Birthday is Coming Soon! (On Wednesday, In Fact)

My Top Ten Books in 2017

It’s the season for Top ten Lists, so here’s mine.

For some years, I’ve been keeping track of my reading, especially books. For 2017, with only two weeks yet to go, I’m at 27 volumes, and a total of 11400 or so pages. That’s close to a thousand pages per month. (I might still make a thousand, if I finish another book or two before New Year’s.)

The “page total” figure is somewhat ambiguous, a s many of the titles here I listened to on CDs in my car. Several others were read on Kindle. But for me all that counts as reading; and I looked up the non-hard copy titles to find the print page count.

This tally does not include newspapers; I typically skim through three or four per morning, online (the Raleigh NC News & Observer; the Washington Post, the New York Times & the Guardian.) And of course I read lots more stuff online, which I don’t keep any systematic record of.

I rarely get brand new, up-to-the-minute books; though a few turned up on this year’s list. And I bought several more books than I actually got read. So be it.

That’s enough background. Of this hefty stack of print (and its electronic equivalents), here are the ten that were most compelling or meaningful.

But before starting with #10, let me detour briefly to the very bottom, and add as a bonus, the books that were most disappointing. Continue reading My Top Ten Books in 2017

Can Dr. King’s 1968 Poor Peoples Campaign Rise Again?

A revival of Dr. King’s 1968 Poor People Campaign was just announced by Rev. William Barber II, set for its 50th anniversary next year.

And just in time for that launch is the newly-published 50th Anniversary edition of Uncertain Resurrection, my account of the 1968 campaign, and how it ended in disaster for the movement. Can the second try be more successful? Continue reading Can Dr. King’s 1968 Poor Peoples Campaign Rise Again?

The Independent Report on the Charlottesville Riots

 

 

A long read.
[But there’s a much longer version if desired.]

These excerpts from the full report, linked below, have been compiled to make the substance of it more accessible.

NOTE the principal author of this 220-page report is Timothy J. Heaphy, of a major law firm Hunton & Williams. The firm was retained by the City of Charlottesville to conduct an exhaustive investigation and produce this report.
From Heaphy’s biography on the firm’s website:

Prior to joining Hunton & Williams LLP, Tim was the United States Attorney for the Western District of Virginia, serving as the chief law enforcement officer responsible for prosecuting federal crime and defending the United States in civil litigation.

During his tenure as United States Attorney, Tim served on the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee, advising the Attorney General on emerging policy issues, He has testified before Congressional committees several times on issues ranging from guns to synthetic drugs to sentencing reform. Continue reading The Independent Report on the Charlottesville Riots

A Quaker Race Riot – Comments & Response

[A Fairly long read.]

Liz Oppenheimer of Minnesota sent in a lengthy comment on my post from last spring, “Quaker Race Riot in Philadelphia?

After pondering it, I decided  to quote it in full as a post, with some responses. Liz’s comment is in bold italics, and it is interspersed with my responses in standard font, with occasional emphasis.

Liz Oppenheimer:

It’s now half a year or more after this piece was first posted, and I have some thoughts and testimony and questions to lift up.

1. WHITE SUPREMACY. In this post there’s an implied question about the rightness or appropriateness of the use of the phrase “white supremacy” when referring to today’s Quakerism. I myself first disliked the word, but since it was used heavily by Friends of Color, I knew I was being Called into living into my discomfort, rather than insisting that my discomfort be eased by challenging the Friends who used it. White Friends are not the only ones who are voices and instruments of the Counselor, and sometimes the Light pierces my heart with Truth I do not wish to know. I would ask white Friends who are uncomfortable with naming white supremacy within our current practices/processes to ask a series of “Why” questions or “What’s at risk if…” questions. “Why do I get uneasy with that phrase? What’s at risk if I accepted it? Why are Friends of color using that phrase, why now?”

My response: It’s hard to respond to “implied questions” that I have not in fact asked, so I will deal instead with my actual practice in using the term “white supremacy.”

I became familiar with the phrase many years ago, as a descriptor mostly of groups (and some individuals) which were clearly dedicated to establishing or maintaining White persons and their perceived interests in power over non-whites, of various colors but mainly black.
“White supremacy” groups were relatively easy to identify, by rhetoric, practice, or both. For instance, the Ku Klux Klan, in its official Handbook issued in 1916, is clear:

At left: the cover of the KKK’s 1916 official Handbook. At right, its “Kreed,” with the relevant section highlighted. “White supremacist”? You bet.

White supremacy was an explicit part of the KKK “Kreed,” as shown above. And this outlook continues.

The Alabama Democratic Party emblem, until 1966.

Another such group, the “outing” of which shocked me at the time (early 1960s), was the Democratic party in many southern states. Alabama, for instance. The party there featured this emblem on its slates of candidates: a rooster and the motto: “White Supremacy for the Right.” Not much doubt there.

And while the Alabama Dems have changed (now mostly black, they dumped the rooster), their place has been taken by others; many others. Here is a selected list:
ACTBAC NC, Traditionalist Workers Party, Proud Boys, Vanguard America, Identity Evropa, Generation Identitaire, Traditionalist Youth Movement, National Socialists, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Council of Conservative Citizens, the League of the South.
I don’t hesitate to call these “white supremacist” groups.
And they’re not distant abstractions to me.

One of them, ACTBAC [“Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County”], is centered in the rural community of Snow Camp NC. The Friends meeting I attend is also in Snow Camp. A few months back, ACTBAC organized a pro-Confederate rally in Chapel Hill (in the next county east) in “defense” of a Confederate statue on the UNC campus. They have organized many similar rallies.

Then there is the “League of the South,” which put up this billboard in Montgomery, Alabama, where I saw it:

With admirable conciseness, this billboard sums up their program: “The League of the South [they say] is not a “neo-Confederate” or “Southern heritage” organization, although we certainly do honor our ancestors and our largely Christian historic inheritance as Southerners. The League is a present- and future-oriented Southern Nationalist organization that seeks the survival, well being, and independence of the Southern people. We stand for our Faith, Family, and Folk living in freedom and prosperity on the lands of our forefathers.
If this vision of a free, prosperous, and independent South appeals to you, please join us in our struggle.” [Emphasis added.]

 But “the Southern people” they want to secede with are white; just for the record. And what will happen to those nonwhites already settled in their projected southern ethnostate? They get rather fuzzy on this, but insist they don’t advocate violence. Really? I wondered again when I saw this bumpersticker on a pickup not long ago.

Anyway, “white supremacy” has maintained its usefulness to me as a distinct descriptor of such groups and ideas; it continues to carry very specific meaning, and I have not hesitated to use it as such. (You can find it several times in a book of mine on civil rights published more than 40 years ago.)

Now, what about, as Liz said, “the rightness or appropriateness of the use of the phrase ‘white supremacy’ when referring to today’s Quakerism.”

First off, “today’s Quakerism” is not an easy thing to pin down. Does it refer to, or include, Kenyan Friends, the largest Quaker population in the world? Are they white supremacist? I wouldn’t think so; they have their issues, but that isn’t near the top. Or what about Latin American Friends, many of whom are “non-white”?  That also seems doubtful to me. (I could be proved wrong about all this; but pending that, I’m sticking with this hunch.)

What about North American Friends? Even this relatively small slice of “today’s Quakerism” is quite a varied group. But I don’t mean this to dodge the issue. 

For instance: in the 1920s, many American Quakers and their meetings became all but absorbed into the Ku Klux Klan, especially in Indiana. As we’ve seen, the KKK is the quintessential white supremacist group, and I would certainly extend the term to those Friends who joined or went along with it.

And this connection was not just a matter of rank-and-file Friends (tho they are important!) The head of a major division of the Indiana KKK was a prominent Quaker pastor, who had served at least half a dozen Friends churches there in a long career. And that pastor was also a prime example of Quaker “distinctives,” namely that rarity in Christian clergy, a woman, and a birthright Hoosier Friend, Daisy Douglass Barr. (I wrote at length about her here.)

So in my view, big chunks of American Quakerism were at least for some while clearly white supremacist in their orientation and connections. The outline of this has been well-documented by non-Quaker historians; but telling the full story of this KKK-Quaker fusion and its unhappy legacy has not yet been taken up by any major Quaker historian. Shame on them.

So are Friends in Indiana still a white supremacist group? For me that’s very much an open question, for two reasons.

First, as I have researched and documented here, the spirit of the Klan, definitely including its white supremacist outlook, and strong ties to the currently ascendant right wing Indiana politics, pervaded and haunted the 2016 election campaign there and elsewhere. So 80 years after the Klan peaked and then withered as a mass organization (though it’s not entirely gone!), what astute observers called “Klanism” is still very much alive, and quite prevalent in Indiana.

And second, in the face of the stonewalling vow of silence about the Quaker-Klan connections by those yearly meetings, and major Quaker historians, the jury is still out.

But then, what about other yearly meetings, say Philadelphia, which was the subject of the blog post that Liz is commenting on. Is Philadelphia YM properly to be called a “white supremacist” group?

My answer is a firm no. But with a qualification:

There are plenty of mainly white religious groups, maybe most, which are on record against racism and slavery and its racist legacy —  yet which fall short in living up to these ideals. Some fall more short than others. Does this make them “white supremacist”? 

It could, as the Indiana case shows. But the histories of the two groups here are, in my view, quite different. One could make a good case that PYM was “white supremacist” until 1758, when it banned slaveholding by members.

But even before that change, I cannot dismiss the long line of antislavery Philadelphia Friends, from those in Germantown in 1688, to Benjamin Lay, Anthony Benezet & John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, Bayard Rustin, and numerous others lesser known, down to our own time, who have carried an active concern, and taken many risks, for racial advance and equality. Further, that body has sponsored many useful (if imperfect) related projects and concerns and remains under the weight of them, if still incompletely.

To be sure, with the highlights there are shortcomings: the segregated bench; the long-segregated Friends schools; and some more recent incidents. And where do PYM’s conflicts which seem to be about race, overlap with and shade into issues of class? (Indeed, my own sense is that class issues may be the bigger elephant in PYM’s room than race; the fact that I hear so little about it is a big clue.)

Rev. William Barber II, former president of the NC NAACP, and new leader of an effort to revive Dr. King’s 1968 Poor peoples Campaign.

But does PYM’s mistakes and failures put it in the same category as the KKK or the League of the South?

I have read such charges; one person of color asserted in a Facebook discussion a few months back that PYM and its leadership was “as bad as could be” on race.

“As bad as could be”? Nope: can’t buy that. And in that Facebook thread, more than one Friend of color dissented from it too; PYM has issues, they said, but it was not as that one person described it.

I agreed with the dissenters of color: PYM’s record is definitely mixed, but it’s not even a close call for me. In fact, I wish PYMers spent more time than they do studying their own 300-plus year record of such work, celebrating its successes, and candidly (but minus the ritual guilt-ridden breast-beating) assessing its failures. They have a rich, neglected religious heritage there.

Thus my problem with calling PYM “white supremacist” is that using the same term for it as for the Klan or ACTBAC makes the phrase nearly useless: too broad, confusing, and drained of explanatory value. 

It’s also, in my view, plain incorrect. PYM is hardly perfect; but it’s not the same as the Klan, or the Klan-infected meetings of Indiana. Not even in the same league.

You want an example of white supremacy in recent Quakerism? Try this, from the First Month 10, 1924 issue of The American Friend, the journal of the Five years Meeting (now FUM):

“On Christmas eve [1923] a splendid program was given in the Friends Church at Rose Hill, Kansas [not far from Wichita], consisting of a tree with presents for all and candy and nuts for the children.

This photo is not from Rose Hill Friends Church, but it is indicative: the Klan visited many many churches in its 1920s heyday.

To the surprise of almost all the audience and at a time previously selected by the pastor, in marched ten members of the Ku Klux Klan in full regalia, lined up and stopped in front of the pulpit and handed the pastor some money.
The pastor in his speech of acceptance, welcomed them, in so far as he personally was concerned, commended them for the good they had done, thanked them for their token of good will and made a few remarks to the gratification of the Klansmen.
Whereupon they marched out without uttering a word, leaving the audience in a state of nervousness.”

It is useful to ponder this brief report. Was the pastor a Klansman? (Many were; KKK organizers offered ministers free memberships to curry favor; plus the public bribes–err, “donations,” were a frequent gesture.) Or was the pastor frightened of the Klan, and submitting to this invasion under duress, in hopes of warding off the Klan’s legendary wrath? The reference to the “state of nervousness” left behind suggests the visit may not have been a welcome one.

Can Philadelphia yearly Meeting be squeezed into this category? I don’t see it. But then what to call it? 

I call it a GARP. 

GARP stands for a Group Affected by Racism & Prejudice.

Yes, PYM (and most mainly white churches) are groups affected by racism and prejudice: GARPs. That’s not the same as a group devoted to white supremacy.

If you don’t believe that, then come visit me in Alamance County, NC, and let’s take a tour. Or if that’s too much, then try an exercise at home: watch this 9-minute video interview with two very serious Neo-Confederates; real live people (don’t worry, there are no expletives, guns or flaming torches in it). But some truly different and unsettling ideas.

Yet being a GARP doesn’t let PYM off the hook for present shortcomings and infractions, including some recent hotly-debated cases, which I won’t take up here. I gather they’re working on them, and others, and there are mixed reactions, even from Friends of color.

So for my part, I’ll keep on calling white supremacy as I see it; there’s plenty of opportunity where I live. My usage may not match that of others, but I stand by it. And I stand by GARPs too; and PYM is one.

Liz Oppenheimer commented further:

2. A NOT SO LONG-AGO PARALLEL. It seems to me that there was quite a bit of resistance among straight Friends to accept claims of homophobia by gay and lesbian Friends (and later bisexual Friends; and transphobia by transgender Friends). Maybe there was even resistance or denial about the word “homophobia” like there is with the phrase “white supremacy.” I wasn’t among Friends back then, but I’ve heard stories, especially from the Midwestern U.S., where I’ve grown into Quakerism. It seems to me that straight Friends back then wanted to see themselves as “good” and didn’t want to yield to the Truth as presented by their gay and lesbian counterparts. Wasn’t there blatant homophobia back then that straight Friends didn’t want to own up to? Wasn’t there also more subtle, institutional homophobia? To what extent might there be parallels between that earlier struggle/transformation and the one that many white Friends are facing now? Who gets to decide the appropriate use of a phrase or the appropriate expression of anger or frustration? Who gets to decide what is appropriate “Quaker process” or other mechanism to address a conflict between someone of the dominant group and someone of the historically oppressed group? 

My response:  As far as parallels between struggles over race and over LGBT terminology in meetings, they happened, yet I believe there was more to it. (I also regret very much that, after forty-plus years of activism and conflict –and in many places much progress–on these issues, there has as yet been no serious history published of this dramatic set of changes among Friends. )

My recollection is that the conflicts included words but were over more than that. It seemed the main struggles were over actions: were meetings to affirm LGBT persons and their relationships? And more recently, were they to affirm and perform same sex unions and then marriages? Were they to accept (and even defend) out LGBTs in all offices in their meetings and groups?

To be sure, there were stresses over the term “marriage” versus “unions” or “commitments”. But I believe it was the doing that was decisive. Another way to put it is, that beyond nomenclature, many truly believed (as most of us did for so long) that all this was simply wrong. And here I shall speak the A-word; “abomination,” which afflicted many of us who paid attention to the Bible, and even others who thought they didn’t.

In some meetings these struggles lasted years. Friends straight and gay quit because of them; for many other straight Friends, hearts and minds changed; for many meetings, the denouement was ultimately happy.

Yet in not a few U.S. yearly meetings, the struggles have concluded (for now) with firm decisions that all this is still a raft of abominations, by whatever new names a gaggle of hellbound liberals might be calling them. Yes, among Quakers today, in the U.S. and elsewhere, homophobia definitely continues to dare speak its name.

And more than a few of these struggles have been accompanied by blatant breaches of anything resembling Quaker process, especially as those determined to save their groups from the “A-word” do what they think they have to do to get their way.

I have reported on these conflicts for years; I watched them destroy a 320-year old Quaker body right here in North Carolina just this year, and chronicled it at length in these columns. 

And with this background, I am put very much on guard by questions such as these:

Who gets to decide the appropriate use of a phrase or the appropriate expression of anger or frustration? Who gets to decide what is appropriate “Quaker process” or other mechanism to address a conflict between someone of the dominant group and someone of the historically oppressed group? 

To all of them, I give what seems to me a very traditional Quaker answer; the body, following its tested good order, that’s who decides. The body has to protect itself from verbal and other assaults; the body has to bear with and manage its conflicts. If Quaker good order is to be held with integrity, such management may take much patience, but also firmness. It is my impression that FLGBTQ is usually rather painstaking about its Quaker process; which seems to me one of its strengths.

I am not trying to say anything new here. There are many other ways to run a church: the pope can ban cell phones from his masses (or at least he can try). An evangelical preacher can wave the Bible and hound dissenters from his church’s halls. Episcopal bishops haggle; Baptists and Unitarians take votes.

And if these don’t satisfy, one still can start The Church Of Do It My Way.

Liz Oppenheimer concluded her comment with this: 

3. A LONGER-AGO PARALLEL. I also imagine a similar trajectory and transformation took place around plain old sexism. To what extent might there be parallels between that earlier struggle/transformation and the one that many white Friends are facing now? Wasn’t there blatant sexism way back then that male Friends didn’t want to own up to? Wasn’t there also more subtle, institutional sexism? (I just read a bit from the new book The Fearless Benjamin Lay, in which the author-historian makes a reference to George Fox’s negative view of women among Friends, for example. Eww.)

Blessings,
Liz

My response:  I have not seen the new book about Benjamin Lay, and can’t comment on what it might have quoted. But it is no news that the history of women’s (and other) equality among Friends is much different from what many modern liberal Friends imagine.

For one thing, I have seen no such item as a “Testimony of Equality” in books of Discipline & Faith & Practice until late in the 20th century. Hear me: it isn’t there. 

To be sure, when Fox established women’s meetings, and legitimized women speaking and as ministers, this was an enormous advance for women in Christian religious settings, one which had far-reaching implications.

Yet women’s meetings were never “equal.” And when early versions of modern notions of gender equality began taking shape among Friends, 200-plus years later, that’s when impatience with women’s separate meetings began to bubble.

But there’s more: whole meetings weren’t “equal.” And Friends within meetings weren’t “equal.” That included men.

I have seen recent writings refer to earlier Quaker meetings as “religious democracies”; that is just eyewash, an uninformed reading back of modern notions into a drastically different setting from three  centuries ago.

In fact, from early on there was a hierarchy, which exercised top-down authority, and it took decades of often bruising internal struggle (which is researched and charted in my book Remaking Friends) to change it. (And in various places it is still largely in place.)

Even so, the innovations by Fox and Fell and others displaced much of what is termed here “plain old sexism” among Quakers. Yes, most Friends were exceedingly sedate and respectable. Yet women’s meetings, and their independent ministry created dynamics that were in key ways very different from other groups.

Sexism? Sure, but I contend much of it was a different variety. Its evolution took time, but it is hardly an accident that so many Quaker women were leading figures in the early women’s movements. I don’t know if Fox would approve of the current outcome (I suspect Fell might be more satisfied), but the connections are there, if long-ripening. Personally, I find this part of our history both fascinating and in many ways uplifting. 

And also shocking. Because the same Quaker religious culture which produced a towering figure like Lucretia Mott (or Margaret Fell) also leaves us blinking in the long shadow of Indiana’s “Chief Kluckeress,” Friend Daisy Douglas Barr; a white supremacist for sure.