Quaker Slavery and Manumissions

I pray and think about the past a lot. I cannot feel it, but I see some of the impacts of trauma from the past on my friends’ lives today. The intergenerational trauma. A number of White Quakers in the past were involved in the institution of slavery, the theft of land from Indigenous peoples, and/or the forced assimilation of Native children.

This morning I came across the term “intergenerational transformative justice”. “As we deal with the uncomfortable truths of our White Quaker ancestors, we release them from the amber in which our myths have captured them. “

The myths we tell ourselves and the lies those myths uphold are embedded in our contemporary faith practice. When we believe and perpetuate falsehoods about ourselves, it not only disconnects us from the truth, it also limits our ability to act with full integrity today. Telling the truth about ourselves and our White Quaker ancestors grounds us in reality, in a sense of the complexity of our identity. It allows us to create a different future, not built from delusion and half of the story but from an honest and grounded reckoning with who we are and who we have been. My friend Mila Hamilton calls this “intergenerational transformative justice.” As we deal with the uncomfortable truths of our White Quaker ancestors, we release them from the amber in which our myths have captured them. As we allow them to become the full, flawed humans they were, we also free ourselves to reckon with our present, which arises from their past, and to tell the full truth of who we are.

A Quaker Call to Abolition and Creation by Lucy Duncan, Friends Journal, April 1, 2021

Friends Journal senior editor Martin Kelley speaks to my friend, Quaker preservationist Avis Wanda McClinton about her work as a community liaison to Haverford College’s “Manumitted: The People Enslaved by Quakers.”

Inside Haverford’s Manumission Archives by Martin Kelley, Friends Journal, February 1, 2022


A manumission is a legal document that promises to free someone who is enslaved. In this context, we’re talking about American chattel slavery. Manumission has existed in many different forms of slavery, generally referring to the freeing of an enslaved person. But in this context, it’s specifically in the Americas with stolen African people. 

Manumissions are often standard sizes of paper, maybe half sheets at times. It might be a normal-sized piece of paper with two manumissions, one on the top and another on the bottom. 

They are promising to free someone, either immediately or in the future. There aren’t a lot of details on whether that promise was ever fully completed or not. These records were turned over to the yearly meetings and the quarterly meetings, which is why we have them. And so at least in that regard, there was some sort of process that Quaker members would go through, in order to demonstrate to their meeting that they were in agreement with the rules. 

Inside Haverford’s Manumission Archives by Martin Kelley, Friends Journal, February 1, 2022

Bibliography:

  • Block, Kristen. Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean: Religion, Colonial Competition, and the Politics of Profit. University of Georgia Press, 2012.
  • Frost, J. William. The Quaker Origins of Antislavery. Norwood Editions, 1980.
  • Gerbner, Katharine. Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018.
  • Soderlund, Jean R. Quakers & Slavery: a Divided Spirit. Princeton University Press, 1985.

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