FMW and Equality: A History, January 2021

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Friends Meeting of Washington (FMW)’s efforts against racism have been very much like our efforts for peace—episodic, often driven by the leading of a single individual, and focused more on policy than on aiding individuals. We have taken numerous short-term actions, and a (very) few actions that created long-term change.

In general, most of our efforts fall into the category of “doing for” rather than “doing with.” Friends Meeting of Washington is, and was from the beginning, a mostly white congregation. Racism was perceived largely by Meeting members as a Black problem rather than caused and sustained by whites.

There have been individual members who lived the testimony of equality, and some committee work that sought to reach out as a community to our neighbors as neighbors. Most of that work occurred around the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and then was renewed in the late 1980s. It continues to this day, as Friends work to more deeply understand our own prejudices and assumptions and take steps to correct them and be good neighbors to our DC community.

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FMW’s Peace Committee was formed in 1931; they changed their name to the Peace and Race Relations committee in 1932 because the NAACP was holding its convention in DC and the committee wanted to invite the “ladies” to tea. This apparently went quite well, but did not result in any substantial connections or work going forward.

Our first secretary of the Meeting was Margaret Jones. She was white, and had a Black friend, Lucy Diggs Stowe, who was Dean of Women at Howard University. Together, the two of them went to the Willard Hotel sometime in the 1930s and integrated their dining room through the radical act of eating lunch together. Margaret was the first of many individuals at FMW who would quietly and fearlessly work against racism.

Our first standing committee appointed in 1931 was the Philanthropic Committee—which was all women, doing good works. They joined the Family Service Society and basically filled needs, bringing baskets of things to families all over the city. But they also wrote to President Roosevelt and the Attorney General in 1936 and 1937 asking them to appoint a Black judge to the bench of the District Police Court. In 1949, they wrote to the National Park Service asking for places for Black people to eat, sleep and get a drink of water in the parks. In 1952, they asked DC for an integrated fire department. They also, according to FMW historian Barbara Nnoka, worked long and hard advocating for school integration in 1952-53 (before Brown v. the Board of Education). 

Meanwhile, the International Student House of Washington, DC began in 1934 when a small group of DC-based Quakers explored how they might make a contribution to peace and a better understanding among people of diverse national backgrounds. This was the year that saw the consolidation of power by Hitler in Germany, the continuing reign of terror by Stalin in the Soviet Union, the Spanish civil war, the brutal occupation of China by Japan, and open racism in the United States. While the Quakers realized they could not directly address the ills that confronted the world at that time, they concluded that contributions to real peace could result from contacts between ordinary people, particularly young adults.  Moreover, they came to believe that the customs of segregation observed here in the nation’s capital, which shut the doors of most rooming houses, hotels and restaurants to people of color, could be remedied by practical action. Their discussions led to the establishment of ISH DC in 1936. In the height of the Depression, FMW Friends often invited students staying there to come for a meal. The minutes are full of delightful reports of these dinners, which must have been a lot of fun. ISH DC is one of the few long-term, ongoing achievements of DC Friends.

In the late 1940s through 1970s, the country entered a period of civil rights challenges, spurred on by the work of labor leaders and African American churches, as well as a growing number of civil rights groups. In 1947, FMW worked with other liberal churches to start an integrated Vacation Bible School which was apparently quite successful. We still own radio scripts from that, somewhere. (Here we see an early example of our Meeting working with neighbors to benefit the community.)

In 1950-51 we supported a Work Camp, co-sponsored by us with AFSC, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the Congress on Racial Equality (their leader for this project was Bayard Rustin). The camp was integrated. Our member Joan Oesher (then Joan Williams) participated and then served on its Board of Directors.

In 1956, the Peace Committee wished to give some support to the boycott of the city buses of Montgomery, AL carried on by the Black community of that city. In an announcement in the Newsletter, the committee declared its willingness to forward any contributions Friends might wish to make to the leaders of the movement. Fifty dollars were sent to Montgomery as a consequence of this announcement. Interestingly, the Meeting as a whole did not contribute—these were all private donations.

In February 1957, we co-sponsored a series of talks with AFSC. One, entitled “Non Violence and the Struggle for Equality and Justice,” was given by Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy of Montgomery, AL.

One of our Young Adult Friends went as a freedom rider in 1961 to Mississippi. He was arrested, and the Meeting reportedly paid his bail.

Most of FMW’s efforts on civil rights, however, came as the leading not of a committee, but from individual members. Some of these leadings were quite heroic. For example, in 1950, FMW member (later founding member of Langley Hill Friends Meeting and Presiding Clerk of Baltimore Yearly Meeting) David Scull joined three Black people in challenging the refusal of the Thompson Cafeteria in DC to serve Black diners. They sued and ultimately won with an 8-0 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1953, based on a statue that applied only to the District of Columbia. 

Notes in the Peace Committee’s minutes refer obliquely to this lawsuit, but it is not clear if the committee, of which David Scull was a member, did more than provide personal affirmation to him.

And not everyone at the Meeting agreed with his stance. Austin Stone, who had been presiding clerk of FMW from 1935 to 1940, became chair of the Sidwell Board of Trustees in 1936. In 1950 he was recorded in the national Quaker magazine, The Friends Intelligencer, as reacting negatively to reports of a white FMW Quaker working with local Black people to integrate Washington restaurants. That FMW Quaker was David Scull.

Shortly after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954, Austin Stone set out his thinking:

I am frankly puzzled as to how some of my friends reach the conclusion that it is unchristian not to admit Negroes to schools where there are both white girls and boys….I would not consider it unchristian of me if I endeavored to do what I could to prevent my children from marrying Negroes…I do not wish to lead them to disregard race in their homes. Is my thought in this regard unchristian? I hope not. It was my father’s also.

In late January of 1956, however, the Sidwell Friends Board voted to begin grade-by-grade integration and Austin Stone resigned.

David Scull also worked closely with the NAACP in Northern Virginia and was subjected to interrogation about that organization by a Virginia legislative committee. His refusal to answer that committee’s questions also led to litigation that he ultimately won with a 9-0 U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1959. 

When David’s son was ready to start school in 1950 there were no integrated schools in Virginia where he lived. He persuaded the recently established Burgundy Farm Country Day School to become the first integrated school in the state.

David was not the only FMW member working for civil rights. Then-member David Hartsough, a white student at All Black Historical College Howard University, participated in a sit-in in People’s Drug Store in Arlington in the 1960s. He tells that story here.

Members Esther Delaplaine and Lib Segal were involved in an effort to found a community in Montgomery County (Bannockburn) that eliminated restrictive covenants against selling homes to Blacks or Jews. The organizing was done at FMW. The community continues today, although it is largely occupied by Jews rather than Black people.

Lib Segal was also involved in the effort to desegregate Glen Echo amusement park. (She was joined in this by members of the Bannockburn community, and students at Howard University.) She later helped to run City at Peace, which used drama to help DC high school students explore the issues in their lives, and received some support for this from FMW:

1986: Peace Committee cooperated with publicizing the City at Peace project, which brought kids from various DC high schools together to write plays about issues in their own lives and perform them. Provided publicity and meeting space for this group.

Ken Jadin, husband of member Leslie Jadin, designed the tents used on the Mall for the 1968 Poor People’s March on Washington. He said they didn’t leak, as opposed to all the others. The campaign depended on donations, mostly from local churches. Notably, FMW did not contribute.

FMW Friends, working with others from Bethesda and Langley Hill Friends Meetings, worked between 1965-71 to advocate for low-income housing. They obtained housing funds to help build Friendly Gardens. Doors opened in 1971, and the organization is still going strong, providing much needed housing in Montgomery County. (Members of FMW serve on their board.)

Mary Belcher, J.E. McNeil and Steve Coleman worked to preserve the Quaker and African-American cemeteries at Walter Pierce Park in Adams Morgan, where thousands of African Americans are buried:

In 1986, beginning of concern about the Quaker burial ground in Adams Morgan on Adams Mill Rd. In the 1950s it came under the ownership of Shapiro Real Estate, who began to develop it until the excavation equipment began to unearth bones. Shapiro sold the property to the DC government of $2.8 million. It is six acres in size, and now serves as a playground and, unfortunately, a drug haven. The Social Concerns Committee is interested in cleaning it up. Area Quakers got together about this, tried to trace the original trustees (a small group of Friends, not a specific Meeting), and went to DC probate court to have successor trustees named.

Beginning in 1987, there was a shift in attitude away from the “doing for” to “doing with.” The Social Concerns Committee struggled with how disconnected we were from our neighbors and from local issues, and noted how our property and our middle class membership kept us bound and blinded in many ways. They thought the solution was to get back to our social justice/spiritual roots, to see the spiritual nourishing the temporal—not to go looking for projects but for a better understanding of our neighbors and our community.

They developed and presented a forum in March which apparently traced the history of Friends’ spirituality leading to work for social justice. Out of this forum grew several efforts to connect with Church of the Saviour (a charismatic Christian church that threw itself and its members into building up the Adams Morgan neighborhood after the 1969 riots devastated the city), learn more about the Quaker workcamps, find out more about our City Council calendar, and connect with the Council of Churches. Member Veronica Parke was involved with Quaker workcamps. (Veronica later ran Martha’s Table, a soup kitchen for children which has long been supported by FMW members.) FMW continues to provide a monthly meal to Christ House, a rehab house for homeless people leaving the hospital, run by Church of the Savior. 

In 1989, Ann Wilcox brought a leading that FMW should partner with the DC School Partners Program and help Marie Reed Elementary School, just a few blocks from the Meeting House. They needed help with their science study program. A few members participated for a couple of years.

The Friends of John Woolman study group was started in the 1990s, to study books about race and racism. Here is how member Neil Froemming describes it:

It was in part a discussion group, but not a group to study John Woolman.  The name was a bit misleading.

It was very much a group working to address the racism (mostly unconscious) among Friends which drove the intractable whiteness of our Meeting, despite our multi-ethnic community and our sincere desire that it could be otherwise.

I wouldn't describe it as being started by me and (his wife) Sara (Satterthwaite), but by a group that included Bill Cousins, Diane McDougall, Neal Peterson, Melissa Dougherty, Marge Larrabee, and others.  It was in one respect a local node in an action network that included so many other activities and groups that many were involved in — the BYM Working Group on Racism Among Friends, the Peace & Social Concerns Committee, the FMW Working Group on the Washington Peace Center, the FGC Friends of African Descent, Process Work DC, Process Work Institute, the FGC Quakers of African Descent Project Committee, the 1999 Burlington Friends Gathering with a Concern for Issues of Racism, Diversity and Inclusiveness, and, of course, etc.

Friends of Color, under the care of Langley Hill Friends Meeting, began to meet at our Meetinghouse in 2002, and was open only to people of color and their families. At that point, there was not discussion of holding this under our care. Riley Robinson, then serving as Administrative Secretary, noted that we’d never agreed to hold a meeting exclusively for one category of people (all are welcome at the meeting with a special welcome to LGBT Friends, for example). The FOC also noted that, although others would like them to take on an activist role, they were looking for respite.

Then, beginning in the early 2000s, U.S. Friends began to develop tools for Meetings and Quaker organizations to use to discover and address their own racism. In 2001, Pendle Hill, in a workshop on pastoral/prophetic anti-racism work, proposed that Meetings do a self-examination by using the following queries:

  1. What is your relationship to people of color as Quakers and as members of the dominant culture? For example, where do you live, where do you work, and where do your children go to school?

  2. What is the relationship of your meeting to communities of color now?

  3. Why do you want to be a multicultural and multiracial meeting?

  4. What is your history as a meeting with communities of color?

  5. What has been your meeting’s experience with diversity on spirituality, classism, and homophobia?

Vanessa Julye, who gave that workshop, did a follow up at FMW in Feb. 2002 on Racism Among Friends. Later, both Baltimore Yearly Meeting and Friends General Conference adopted their own set of queries to be used as Friends decide on actions.

David Etheridge carried the water for this new movement to Friends Meeting of Washington. He led the adult study group in reading The New Jim Crow, which analyzes mass incarceration as a kind of genocide. Starting in 2015, David convened a group to read Waking Up White by Debby Irving, a book that helped the group's white members to recognize the racism that was baked into themselves and their culture. Four members of that group broke off to develop an audit of our Meeting (see attached), a process that took about a year. We then met committee by committee in 2018 to go through the audit questions, and uncovered a number of places in which we were inadvertently pushing away people of color. Some of these were corrected; others are ongoing. We also conducted a demographic study, discovering that the Meeting, despite years of efforts to become more welcoming to people of color, was still about 97% white. (Notably, a group of white allies calling themselves Showing Up for Racial Justice was also organized at the Meetinghouse in 2015.)

Two members of the audit group then started a Change Group on Racial Equity in 2019, which serves as a taskforce under Ministry & Worship. We began to convene a series of workshops to look at aspects of racial injustice, such as implicit bias, micro-aggressions, redlining and its long-term effects, etc. We also brought the Theatre Action Group presentation in 2019 and Khalilah Lomax’s five-part series in the spring of 2020. We created this account of racial injustice as practiced by the Meeting through its history. We also created and seasoned queries to be used when the Meeting is making decisions to be sure that they are being vetted through the lens of racial equality. Those queries were passed at the January 2020 Meeting for Business, and used at the start of each MfB for the entire year.

FMW Anti-Racist Queries

"Queries"--leading questions--have long been used as an integral part of Quaker spiritual and social justice practice.  Our community has agreed that we will use the queries below in all of our decision processes, to help us become aware of the racism that is built into our culture and our Meeting, and work to heal it.

1. How will we provide opportunities for those most likely to be directly affected by the choices we are contemplating to influence the decision making process?   

2. How could the choices we are contemplating affect those who have been harmed by systemic, institutional, interpersonal and/or internal racism?

3. To what degree have privilege, class, stereotypes, assumptions, and our ability to include other perspectives affected this decision making process?

4. How will the choices we are contemplating promote equity, diversity, and inclusiveness? Will they enable us to be more friendly and whole, engaging across racial divisions?

5. How do the choices we are contemplating support the declaration of our Yearly Meeting that we aspire to be an anti-racist faith community?

Moving beyond this self-examination into action, in 2019 FMW officially joined the Washington Interfaith Network, which put us in close association with about 70 congregations throughout DC working to support and empower our vulnerable neighbors. With them, we have taken several actions to support affordable housing and the preservation of neighborhoods from the ravages of gentrification. We have also met and gotten to know the congregation at Metropolitan AME Church, and deepened that relationship through work on behalf of our wider community.

It is our hope that, as FMW continues to deepen and strengthen its relationship with our DC neighbors, that we will grow in our welcome and embrace diversity in a more meaningful way. We are mindful that this, like all important quests, is a spiritual journey—one that will strengthen and deepen our understanding and commitment to the Testimony of Equality. Let us see what love can do.

Respectfully submitted,
Debby Churchman and David Etheridge
Change Committee for Racial Equity
January 2021