Biographical / Historical
In 1919, Esther Morton Smith of the Arch Street (Orthodox) Meeting of Philadelphia brought forth a concern on the lynching of African Americans. After voicing her concern to the Women’s Meeting, she took it to the Men’s Yearly Meeting, and a body named the Committee on Lynching was formed to study the problem. Smith also addressed the Race Street (Hicksite) Meeting, and they, too, formed an Anti-Lynching Committee after consideration in the Men’s Yearly Meeting. The two committees cooperated until both were laid down in 1921, whereupon Hicksite Friends formed a Committee on the Interests of the Colored Race and the Orthodox Friends formed a Committee on Race Relations to “encourage all right methods tending to a better understanding between the white and colored races.” (1921 PYM [O] proceedings, p. 16) The committee was also expressly “empowered to add to its members those other than Friends.” (1921, p. 39 [O])
The two committees worked separately (albeit with occasional cooperative efforts) until 1929 on such projects as Housing and Education and with groups such as the Southern Conference on Inter-Racial Cooperation (supported by Orthodox Friends) and the Interracial Committee of Philadelphia (organized by Hicksite Friends). In 1929, on the recommendation of the American Friends Service Committee, the two committees merged to form a “Joint Committee on Race Relations.” Sixteen years of cooperation between the two meetings followed, during which time the foremost objective was exposure of white Friends to “educated Negroes.” The committee was especially impressed by Crystal Bird, a singer of spirituals hired by the American Friends Service Committee, and with her help they began sending various black representatives to schools, meetings, and clubs in the Philadelphia area in an effort to eliminate prejudices and build understanding. The committee also became concerned with episodes of anti-Semitism prior to and throughout the Second World War, during which time they published and distributed pamphlets designed to counteract negative publications then in circulation. Their primary focus, however, remained what they termed White-Negro relations in the United States, to which they compared the anti-Semitism in Central Europe: “We are aghast at what is going on in Germany, but we need to realize that we have never given full rights as human beings to the largest minority group in our own country.” (1936, p. 126 [O]) (The committee published one annual report which was issued in both sets of Yearly Meeting Proceedings.) During this time period, guests of the committee included W.E.B. DuBois, Marian Anderson, and Alan Patton, among others.
Following the 1955 “organic union” of the two Philadelphia Yearly Meetings, the committee continued its work, starting a yearly conference entitled “Beliefs Into Actions,” supporting various Fair Housing organizations, and developing a very successful “Green Circle” program designed to educate children in a prejudice-free fashion. Beginning in the 1960s, the committee saw increased activity as Race Relations became a national concern. It worked to integrate Friends’ Schools as well as Philadelphia public schools, to educate both whites and blacks, and to eliminate cultural deprivation and housing and workplace discrimination. A Meeting for Social Concerns was created in 1969, and the Committee on Race Relations, along with seven others, was placed under its jurisdiction. Later in 1969 the committee was jarred by the demands of the Black Manifesto and the group that published it, the Black Economic Development Conference. In special sessions of the Yearly Meeting, Friends were addressed by Muhammed Kenyatta , a Black civil rights leader, and struggled to find unity with the ideas of reparations and Black Power. In 1970 the Committee was laid down, and its functions and experience were continued by the Community Involvement Program under the Meeting for Social Concerns.