For centuries, Quakers have been known for pacifism, teetotaling and opposing slavery. But an upcoming free public lecture at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga will detail how some Quakers amassed great wealth on the whip-scarred backs of kidnapped Africans forced into slavery.
“A group of local Quakers took interest in ‘The 339 Manumissions and Beyond Project’ based in greater Philadelphia and reached out to the UTC History Department about the possibility of partnering on a public event here in Chattanooga,” said Dr. Michael Thompson, a UC Foundation associate professor of history whose courses include the antebellum American South and slavery.
“The History Department proudly partners with many community groups to not only provide our students with internship and research opportunities, but also to support educational initiatives that aim to address tough issues and better our local communities.”
The presentation “The 339 Manumissions and Beyond Project: A Reparative Search for Descendants of Formerly Enslaved Africans” will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23, at the Guerry Center Reading Room, 715 Oak St. on campus at UTC.
“The 339 Manumissions and Beyond Project” is a research and educational effort in response to the release of newly digitized manumission documents at Haverford College, located just outside Philadelphia. “Manumission” refers to the legal document that freed enslaved people from bondage. The Quaker and Special Collections archive contains documents for 339 enslaved Africans who were freed between 1765 and 1790 by slaveholding families who belonged to the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) of the Religious Society of Friends, the central organizing body for Quaker meetings for parts of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey.
The project’s goal is “to be a restorative, healing force that connects modern descendants with their enslaved ancestors, and to understand the lives of these first generations of ‘freemen,’” the project states.
Project co-leader Avis Wanda McClinton of the Philadelphia area is working to discover what happened to these 339 “children of God” and to find their descendants. McClinton was the first and only Quaker at her home congregation in the township of Upper Dublin, near Philadelphia, and will be one of the presenters. McClinton has led efforts to create monuments to manumitted slaves to make sure they are never forgotten.
“It’s about us straightening up American history,” McClinton said in a phone interview. “This is God’s work. I feel led to do it but sometimes I think I don’t have what it takes to do this job: How to bring humanity and some dignity to them? That’s what keeps me up at night.”
McClinton said she has been physically and verbally attacked for her efforts by fellow Quakers, but the former steelworker said she is undeterred.
“White people of Quakerism have pushed back on me for airing dirty laundry. We’re not supposed to talk about race or racism during worship. … Once I found that Quakers had [formerly] enslaved people in their graveyards, I made up an ad hoc group of friends to say let’s find more of these.”
Haverford contacted McClinton after digitizing their records, said David Satten-López, a 2021 Spectrum Scholar and the former Morris Evans Post-Baccalaureate Fellow at Haverford College, where he led the school’s first iteration of the website manumissions.haverford.edu.
The next step, said Satten-López—who will be presenting historical evidence alongside McClinton—is to partner with Howard University in Washington, D.C., and research its manumission documents.
“This is part of really looking at the more complicated, real history of our country,” he said. “Even though this group was one of the first American religious groups to be abolitionists, the Quakers had a very conflicted history leading up to that. There were fights, debates and discussions about this. This is always a difficult process for the white community.
“We’re looking forward and toward the partnership with Howard and getting this history out there. It’s often been of the most interest to the Quaker community, but we want to bring it back to the African American community. To do that with descendants of those enslaved would be amazing,” Satten-López said.
“To repair is to fix what was broken,” the project’s mission states. There were three aspects of Quakers and slavery: First was the violent capture and removal of people from their homes in Africa, stripping them of their freedom, families and culture. The second was wealthy Quakers’ exploitation of enslaved people, and the third was their refusal to allow freed slaves into the religion.
“While we celebrate that Quakers came to recognize the humanity of these enslaved people and the immorality of participating in the institution of slavery … the damage from these breaks comes down to us today, as people whose ancestors were enslaved are cut off from their family histories, and Quakers continue to struggle with full participation by people of African descent in their church,” the project states. “Our Quaker-led project is a reparative project as we seek to restore the family histories of those descended from people enslaved by Quakers and answer the question of what happened to these newly freed Americans and how they survived?”
The UTC presentation is spearheaded by local Quakers with the Chattanooga Friends Meeting of which Laura Seeger has been a member for nearly 20 years. She is the clerk of its ad hoc committee for the 339 Manumissions presentation.
“The Religious Society of Friends (better known as Quakers) has a history/reputation of being abolitionists,” Seeger said. “While there is some truth to this—it is not the whole story. When Quakers first came to this country, many benefited from the slave trade. I think it is important that we acknowledge our whole history—not just the parts that make us look good. I hope through this presentation we can talk more honestly about history, specifically Quakers’ role and how we might approach reparative justice for the descendants of folks that were enslaved by Quakers [and make] steps in the right direction to a more just and loving society.”