HISTORY AND ARCHIVES: AFRICAN AMERICAN QUAKERS

 

February is Black History Month. Let us introduce you to two black Quakers, who made important contributions to our society.

 

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Sarah Mapps Douglass was born in 1806 in Philadelphia and died in 1882. Her parents were Robert Douglass, Sr, a prosperous hairdresser from the island of St. Kitts, and Grace Bustill, a milliner. Her mother was the daughter of Cyrus Bustill, a prominent member of Philadelphia’s African-American community. Raised as a Quaker by her mother, Douglass was alienated by the blatant racial prejudices of many white Quakers. Although she adopted Quaker dress and enjoyed the friendship of Quaker antislavery advocates like Lucretia Mott, she was highly critical of the sect.

 

In a new pamphlet titled Sarah Mapps Douglass, Faithful Attender of Quaker Meeting: View from the Back Bench, author Margaret Hope Bacon describes Sarah’s history as a black educator as well as her experiences with Quakers. As a teacher, a lecturer, an abolitionist, a reformer and a tireless advocate of women’s education, Sarah made her influence felt in many ways. Her emphasis on education and self-improvement helped shape the lives of the many hundreds of black children she taught in a career in the classroom that lasted more than 50 years, while her pointed and persistent criticism of northern racism reminded her white colleagues in the abolitionist movement that their agenda must include more than the emancipation of the slaves.

 

For more than 40 years, Douglass enjoyed a close friendship with abolitionists Sarah Grimke and Angelina Grimke.  In 1855 she married the Reverend William Douglass, a widower with nine children and the minister of Philadelphia’s prestigious St. Thomas’s African Episcopal church. In one respect, marriage gave Douglass a new freedom. In 1855 she enrolled in the Pennsylvania Medical University and in 1858 she embarked on a career a lecturer, confronting topics that would have considered unseemly for an unmarried woman to address.

 

After 165 years, Sarah, this faithful attender of Quaker Meeting, has much to say to Friends in the 21st century, especially those concerned with racism and the lack of racial diversity within the Religious Society of Friends.

 

Margaret Hope Bacon’s monograph can be ordered from Quaker Press, 1-800-966-4556 or www.quakerbooks.org. You can also find more information on Sarah Mapps Douglass on the google search website.

 

 

 

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One of the best-known 20th century African American Quakers was Bayard Rustin, who was one of the most important leaders of the American civil rights movement from the advent of its modern period in the 1950s until well into the 1980s. Bayard was born in West Chester, PA in 1912. His maternal grandparents were Friends and Quakerism became his faith. After college, Rustin moved to New York City in 1937. Although he joined the 15th Street Meeting there, he also became radicalized and for a time affiliated with the Young Communist League. During World War II, Rustin, a total pacifist refused to even register as a conscientious objector and went to prison for three years. After the war, he began civil right work with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, doing jail time in the South and traveling to India and Africa to explore nonviolence further.

 

A relatively open gay man, Rustin was forced to keep a low profile after an arrest in 1953 on a “morals charge.” He did serve as head of the War Resisters League and played an important role in the evolution of AFSC in the 1950s. After 1955, Rustin became a key advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin was the chief architect of the 1963 March on Washington, at which King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Rustin pushed for African Americans to form coalitions with white liberals and working people. He was skeptical of the emerging Black Power movement and affirmative action. The emergence of the gay rights movement made him a hero to a new constituency. He died in New York City in 1987.

 

  John D’emilio’s new biography Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (2003) tells the story in greater detail.

 

Readers can also find more information on the google search website.