Lasting Impact of Quakers of Color

Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting

Pastor Bob Henry

February 10, 2019


Romans 12:15-18 (NRSV)


15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.



I have to say, this has been a full week of racial tensions and some difficult remembrances in our country.


Starting last Sunday evening with a rather boring Superbowl filled with all types of racial tensions and controversies - everything from the halftime show to the national anthem.


Then on Tuesday, we were reminded of the death of Trayvon Martin who would have turned 24 yrs. old that day. The anniversary of his unnecessary death in 2012 sparked a new level of racial tension in America that continues today. The anniversary of his death will be later this month on Feb. 26. 


And then on this same day acclaimed and beloved actor Liam Neeson appeared on Good Morning America and shockingly confessed to anchor Robin Roberts that 40 years ago he had sought to confront and commit violence against random black men after learning that someone close to him had been raped. This bringing the cancellation of his red-carpet event for his upcoming movie and many people asking for him to be removed from current movie rolls and past work.


On top of these issues, we have endured a non-stop barrage of breaking news all week about white leaders in prominent positions of our government wearing blackface and KKK hoods and dressing as black entertainers in their younger years. 


What a week, as we are to be celebrating Black History Month. To me it simply shows why we have such a need to educate ourselves and take time to remember and celebrate our African American sisters and brothers.  If you weren’t aware (or did not read my “As Way Opens” this week,


Black History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time for recognizing the central role of blacks in U.S. history. The event grew out of “Negro History Week,” the brainchild of noted historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans. Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month. Other countries around the world, including Canada and the United Kingdom, also devote a month to celebrating black history. (History Channel)


Also, this week, Progressive Christian writer, speaker, and coach Kerry Connelly got my attention when she posted a photo of her “Top Ten Ways White People Can Celebrate Black History Month.”  All ten were convicting, but number 7 really hit me,

“Ask your faith community to stop ignoring race.”


Race is not an easy issue to address – just look at this week’s news if you don’t believe me. But as Quakers, a fundamental tenant of our faith is the equality of ALL people.  As many of you in this room know, we at First Friends have some “skeletons in our closet” from our history that at some point we are going to need to address and finally reconcile - and that will not be easy.  We cannot simply continue to tell our versions of our tainted history in private thinking they do not hinder our relationship with people of color within and outside of our Meeting. Simply put, we have work to do.


So, as for today, we are supposed to be celebrating our black sisters and brothers and learning about and from their stories.  That is why today, I have chosen to introduce us to six significant African American Quakers in American history. 


A few weeks ago, when I was teaching our Affirmation students, I asked for them to share with me the names of historic Quakers who embraced their inner lights and lived out an understanding of “that of God in everyone.” After many of the famous names (George Fox, Lucretia Mott, Levi Coffin, Margaret Fell) were shared, one student exclaimed, “How about Martin Luther King Jr.?”  Even though we included King because he embraced many Quaker values, it caused me to recognize how significantly our list was lacking color.  Ironically, one of my favorite Quaker’s of color was Bayard Rustin who was Dr. King’s righthand man.  You may have heard his name, but today, I will be introducing you to Quakers Cyrus Bustill, Paul Cuffe, Bayard Rustin, Barrington Dunbar, and Vera Green. All Quakers of color who have made an impact on our world.  Let’s begin with…


Cyrus Bustill (info from

Cyrus Bustill was born enslaved in Burlington, New Jersey in 1732.  His father sold him to Quaker Thomas Prior, a baker who taught Cyrus his trade. Cyrus was one of 104 Africans liberated by Friends in Burlington Quarterly Meeting from 1763-1793.


Cyrus became a successful baker and operated his own baking business for many years.  In 1787 after moving to Philadelphia, Cyrus became a founder of Philadelphia’s Free African Society. His entire family was actively involved in the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia. After building his own home, he also created a school for African American children in 1803.  


Under the care of Friends at Arch Street Meeting where they attended, Cyrus married Elizabeth Morrey, the daughter of Satterhwait, a Delaware Indian, and Richard Morrey, the son of the first mayor of Philadelphia.  They had eight children together.


On April 29, 2000, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission dedicated a state historical marker on the site of Bustill’s neighborhood at Third and Green to commemorate the Underground Railroad.  The Bustill family is one of the oldest African American families in the United States, and members of the family still live in Philadelphia.  We hope to visit the neighborhood and marker while in Philadelphia with our Affirmation Students this summer.


Paul Cuffe (info from

Paul Cuffe was born in Cuttyhunk, Massachusetts in a family of ten.  He taught himself mathematics, navigation, and other seafaring skills.  He became wealthy through whaling and trade in the Americas and Europe. He started his shipping business at the age of 16 during the Revolutionary War.  He also built boats during the war with his brother, David. Together, they smuggled merchandise through British blockades. 


Paul saw education as a means of liberation and began fighting for equal rights in many ways.  He taught other young black men the science of navigation and skills of a merchantman.  In 1800, he bought his own gristmill and a century and a half before his time urged mills to include African Americans in the planning stages of organizations.  He and other black men protested taxation on his father’s estate on the grounds of no taxation without representation. 


Even though he had a long involvement with Friends, Paul did not join Westport Monthly Meeting until 1806 when he was 49.  He dressed in the manner of Friends, wearing gray along with the wide-brimmed black hat.  In 1810 Paul shared a leading he had to establish a trading community in Sierra Leone that focused on trading goods instead of humans.  The Meeting approved his journeys and helped him establish this system of commerce in Sierra Leone.  Paul became well respected among Friends and became a leader at Westport Monthly Meeting.


Bayard Rustin (info from

Bayard Rustin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, on March 17, 1912. He had been raised to believe that his parents were Julia and Janifer Rustin, when in fact they were his grandparents. He discovered the truth before adolescence, that the woman he thought was his sibling, Florence, was in fact his mother, who'd had Rustin with West Indian immigrant Archie Hopkins. 


Throughout his early years, Bayard became more and more engaged in the plight of African Americans in America. He found ways to combine the pacifism of his Quaker faith, the non-violent resistance taught by Mahatma Gandhi, and the socialism espoused by African-American labor leader A. Philip Randolph to get the attention of many people. During World War II he worked for Randolph, fighting against racial discrimination in war-related hiring.

Throughout the 30, 40’s and 50’s Bayard, as a Quaker, worked with American Friends Service Committee. It all started with a training AFSC put on at Cheyney State Teachers College that he attended while a student at the historic black college. By 1941 he was the sole black member of the AFSC delegation.  Together with the Fellowship of Reconciliation and AFSC, Bayard traveled around the country to address racism, colonialism, and conflict resolution.  Bayard was even among a group of men who authored AFSC’s influential document “Speak Truth to Power” which called for nonviolent alternatives to end the Cold War (which was a major part of my doctoral dissertation).

Sadly, Rustin was often punished for his beliefs. During the war, he was jailed for two years when he refused to register for the draft. When he took part in protests against the segregated public transit system in 1947, he was arrested in North Carolina and sentenced to work on a chain gang for several weeks. And because he was openly gay, he was arrested for practicing his sexuality in a public way – an issue that, at this time, sadly kept him in the background of the civil rights movement.  Later after the civil rights movement, he would become a strong voice for gay rights in America.

In 1947, Bayard organized the “First Freedom Ride” to challenge segregation, and by 1950 was seen as an expert organizer of human rights protests in America and England. Rustin met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and in 1955 began working with King as an organizer and strategist. He taught King about Gandhi's philosophy of non-violent resistance and advised him on the tactics of civil disobedience. He assisted King with the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama in 1956.

Most famously, Rustin was a key figure in the organization of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which King delivered his legendary "I Have a Dream" speech on August 28, 1963.

Throughout the decades, Bayard was a powerful voice for equality that moved audiences. His activism would remain inextricably linked to his Quaker values and upbringing.  Bayard believed as he said, “We are all one, and if we don’t know it, we will learn it the hard way.”  To this day, I consider Bayard Rustin a “Triple Threat” fighting for civil rights, gay rights, and nonviolence.

Barrington Dunbar (info from

Barrington Dunbar was born in British Guyana and educated in the United States. He devoted his life to social work, as the director of settlement houses, camps for refugees, and other such services. He joined 57th Street Meeting in Chicago and later was active with 15th Street Meeting in New York City.

Much like Bayard Rustin, Barrington was committed to both black liberation and Quakerism. Yet he was on the other side of the movement.  Instead of the non-violent movement of King and Rustin, Barrington was on the Black Power side of the moment which was often associated with a violent rhetoric and alienated his pacifist friends. 

Barrington left his mark when he wrote an essay, “Black Power’s Challenge to Quaker Power” which was included in his book, “Black Fire: African American Quakers on Spirituality and Human Rights” published by Quaker Press in 1968.

Barrington’s work challenged people to see the violence that operates in White Communities and highlighted the necessity of doing anti-racism and social justice work as an extension of the Quaker belief of that of God in everyone. 

Barrington believed that Quakers/Friends who have experienced love in the fellowship of the “gathered community” can demonstrate to the wider community what love can do in the following ways – these are just as relevant in our world and meeting today:

1.     We need to nurture the Inner Light—the source of the phenomenal power of the eighteenth-century Quakers. “Quaker Power” can be as effective as “Black Power” in speeding up revolutionary changes.

2.     We need to listen in love to the black people of America and to submit ourselves to the violence of their words and actions if we are to identify truly with their anguish and despair.

3.     We need to understand, to encourage, and to support the thrust of black people to achieve self-identity and power by sharing in the control of institutions in the community that affect their welfare and destiny.

4.     We must invest our resources—money and skill—to provide incentives for black people to develop and control economic, political, and social structures in the community.

5.     We must support the passage of antipoverty legislation leading to programs that will remedy the deplorable economic and social conditions existing in urban ghettos.

6.     We must oppose racial injustice wherever it is practiced: in the neighborhood where we live, in our places of business, and in our contacts with the wider community.

And finally…

Vera Green (info from

Vera Green was born in Chicago, Illinois and she too was a member of 57th Street Meeting of Friends (like Barrington Dunbar).  She attended William Penn College where she studied sociology and psychology.  She has a sociology degree from Roosevelt College in Chicago, a Master’s in anthropology from Columbia University, and in 1955 began work in international community development with the United Nations.  She had a passion for international human rights.

In 1969 at the height of the Civil rights movement, Vera, an educated black woman received a doctoral degree in anthropology from the University of Arizona. This degree took her on to fieldwork in the Caribbean Island of Aruba.  She was one of the first African American anthropologists to study ethnic relations in the Caribbean. 

Vera sensed a call to help people of Color around her disbelieve in their inequality that the world was telling them that they shouldn’t be allowed to hold important job titles or be scientifically inclined.  In 1973 Friends General Conference asked Vera to study “the problems of, and possible approaches for attracting more Black members” to the Religious Society of Friends.

Some of Greens observations were that African Americans knew little about Quakerism.  The attractions were patience, casual dress, lack of ceremony, and general Quaker understanding towards humanity.  “Peaceful,” “passive,” and “passive resistance” was less engaging as it was associated with submissive demands of enslaved people in order to survive.

After a long battle with cancer, Vera died on January 17, 1982 after making a lasting impact on the world on anthropology and the Religious Society of Friends.  She continues to encourage Black students and professionals today even though she is gone.


My hope is that this little history lesson introducing you to real Quakers of Color has helped us honor and remember the significant impact that African Americans (and especially these Quakers) have had on our society and world. 

I want to close this time and move into our time of Waiting Worship pondering the following queries posed by Barrington Dunbar to Friends Meetings (which you will find on the back of your bulletins this morning:  

·        How can “Quaker Power” speed up “revolutionary changes” in our community? How might it play a role in transforming systems of oppression?

·        How can we show “what love can do” for racial justice?

·        Is First Friends more than a “social club” for people with “common interests”? Who or what might be missing from our “beloved community”?