Dem Quakers is Good White Folks

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The Underground Railroad was a network of people, African American as well as white, offering shelter and aid to escaped slaves from the South. It developed as a convergence of several different clandestine efforts. The exact dates of its existence are not known, but it operated from the late 18th century to the Civil War, at which point its efforts continued to undermine the Confederacy in a less-secretive fashion. [1] 

George Fox

So, who created it? Well, it depends on who you ask. Some historians credit white Christian abolitionists – “the Quakers.”  Quakers are a historically Christian denomination whose formal name is the “Religious Society of Friends” or “Friends Church.” Members of the various Quaker movements are all generally united by their belief in the ability of each human being to experientially access the light within, or “that of God in every one”. [2] The “Friends” were informally known as Quakers because they were said to “tremble in the way of the Lord.” [3]

Quaker leader George Fox, after a trip to Barbados, where he saw conditions slaves endured, pleaded with members of his sect to release their slaves even though they had treated them well.  Not only did many Quakers release their slaves, but they saw to it that they could take care of themselves, teaching them to read and write and, in many cases, seeing that they were escorted to states or territories where they could live in freedom. [4] 

Although George Washington freed all his slaves in his will, [5] he once complained that Quakers had attempted to “liberate” one of his slaves in 1786. [6] 

Next time you see this in the grocery store, think about the Underground Railroad.

Two prominent Quakers – Levi Coffin and John Fairfield

Levi Coffin: Sometimes called “the President of the Underground Railroad,” for nearly 20 years, North Carolina — born Coffin and his wife Catharine used their strategic location in southern Indiana, the modern-day Fountain City, to help more than 2,000 former slaves escape to freedom. A successful merchant, Coffin personally helped finance many Underground Railroad efforts. So many fugitive slaves came through his home that people renamed it “Grand Central Station.” Coffin’s reputation as a model citizen inspired other white people to become involved with the Underground Railroad. His 1847 relocation to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he died many years later, didn’t end his Underground Railroad activities.

John Fairfield: Hailing from a slaveholding family in Virginia, Fairfield, who abhorred slavery, became involved in the Underground Railroad when he helped a slave friend escape to Canada. Subsequently other black people, presumably in the Ohio area where he spent a lot of time, sought him out and paid him to help their relatives and friends escape. Posing as a slaveholder, a slave trader, and sometimes a peddler, Fairfield was able to gain the confidence of whites, which made it easier for him to lead runaway slaves to freedom. One of his most impressive feats was freeing 28 slaves by staging a funeral procession. While he led many of his charges to Canada, others he delivered to Levi Coffin, who handled the remainder of their escape. [7]

Recently, a certain Quaker was featured prominently in the national news and the center of controversy related to race relations in the USA. Do you know the name of the abolitionist Quaker I am speaking of?

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Black History Quiz Answer

The Quaker featured in the news recently was Betsy Ross.  Historians think the story of Betsy Ross is more of a legend than fact, akin to George Washington chopping down a cherry tree or Davy Crockett killing a bear at three years old. There is no definitive proof that she did or did not sew the first American flag for George Washington, nevertheless she receives credit for it. As such, accusing a Quaker of creating a “racist” flag is laughable in the context of history. This is possibly why, some may not want her to receive credit. (The origin of Betsy Ross being credited for the flag begins with a testimony of her grandson to a Historical society, 50 years after Betsy Ross’ passing.) [8]  

Presidential Inauguration of Barack Obama

Prior to Colin Kapernick declaring the Besty Ross flag as a symbol of hate, it was routinely part of American political celebrations (i.e. President Barack Obama’s inauguration) and is often seen waving from American homes nationwide. Although some have tried to tie the Betsy Ross flag to white supremacy (i.e. Jeremy Joseph Christian), it is often seen waving from American homes nationwide as a symbol of freedom and pride in country. 


[1] Underground Railroad
[2] George Fox’s Journal 
[3] English Dissenters and Their Beliefs – Living Gospel Daily
[4] Cameron, Judy, and Bachelor, Rosemary, “Quakers in the Anti-Slavery Movement,” The Second Boat, Vol. 17, No. 6, Winter, 1998.
[5] A Decision to Free His Slaves
[6] Letter from George Washington to Robert Morris (April 12, 1786)
[7] The Underground Railroad: Key Participants
[8] Cox, Vicky, “Betsy Ross – A Flag for a New Nation” 2013 

For further study:

Black History Quiz is a weekly celebration of the contributions and achievements of Africans and the descendants of the diaspora in the United States and around the world. PLEASE SUBSCRIBE to this newsletter and help spread the word about a proud people and their cultures. New issues post on Sundays.

(This issue of Black History Quiz was originally published on July 19, 2020.)

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