Interview with Donna McDaniel
By Angelina Conti
AC: How did work on Fit for Freedom begin for you?
Donna McDanielDM: I knew Beckey Phipps, clerk of the Religious Education Committee of Friends General Conference, because we were both representatives of New England Yearly Meeting to FGC’s Central Committee for several years, so when I was looking for a worthwhile project on racism around Boston that I could donate a substantial amount of time to, Beckey was one of the people I e-mailed. Twenty minutes later she e-mailed back, saying that the RE Committee had been looking for an author for a project for about two years. The project was to update Kenneth Ives’ Black Quakers. As a writer and student of history, it just seemed to me that this would be exactly the kind of thing I’d love to do. This was in March 2001.
Although there was some desire to have an author who was an African American Quaker, the committee overseeing the project decided to accept my offer. I did assure them that I would seek a lot of input from African American Quakers. As it turned out, in June, Vanessa, the perfect person, became available, another miracle of this project. A good example of what happens when we follow our leadings—things work out the way they are supposed to! From the first e-mail I sent out to anyone who might know of a project — way opened, as we Quakers say, and events fell into place.
AC: I know that that work took you to Pendle Hill in Wallingford, PA. Can you talk more about that?
DM: When I told a friend of mine in Boston, not a Quaker, that I was looking for something to do related to race, she suggested I talk to Paul Rasor, a Unitarian minister who had been living in Boston but left to be on staff at Pendle Hill. I contacted Paul before I knew about the Black Quakers project and, since he had given me a lot of good suggestions, I thought it would be courteous to let him know that I had chosen something else but appreciated his help. So I called and talked and that was that, or so I thought.
The next day or so he called me back and told me that he “just happened to be walking along with Margaret Fraser” —Dean of Pendle Hill at the time — “and mentioned your project and Margaret had said ”˜Oh, that sounds like a good project for the Cadbury Scholarship.’” The Henry Cadbury Scholarship covers all costs of an academic year at Pendle Hill. Since the deadline was just days away, Pendle Hill gave me an extra week to prepare my application—another example of how, when you’re led to do something, way opens.
I never would have dreamed of applying for the Cadbury otherwise. It’s described as being for a Quaker scholar working on a history project, and I didn’t see myself as a Quaker scholar. After all, I thought, “There are people who have been at this for years, and this is my first time, and I need a crash course on Quaker history!” I had been a Quaker only since the late 1980s and had learned only a bit of Quaker history, sort of by osmosis. But I sure know a lot now. It would never have occurred to me that I could live at Pendle Hill; I expected I’d be camping out with various people in Philadelphia for long stretches of time to use the Quaker libraries there. Living at Pendle Hill not only made doing the initial research exponentially easier, but I could take related courses and workshops, meet Friends from all over the world who turned up there, and it was a blessing for my spiritual growth.
AC: At what point did it become clear to you that the project needed a bigger scope than just a re-editing of Black Quakers?
DM: Pretty early on. In June, after Vanessa came on. We knew each other casually from the Central Committee of FGC. We hadn’t even met yet to talk about the project ourselves. Since we both were going to the June 2001 FGC Gathering, it seemed like a good opportunity to bring some Friends together to talk about the book —members of FGC’s Publications Committee and other interested Friends. Vanessa had organized a Center for Friends of Color at several Gatherings, so we invited people through the Center and about twenty of us met there one afternoon.
During that discussion the idea came forward that [the book] really could benefit from some context, rather than just being a collection of biographies. In fact, we know now how important a wider context is — we can say something about Quakers and what they were doing, but an observation is more meaningful when there’s some perspective on the larger picture. So we decided to add some historical context to Black Quakers. I don’t think we knew just how much it would turn out to be!
One of the first things we did, when I got to Pendle Hill, was meet with Quaker historians—Margaret Hope Bacon and Emma Lapsansky among them—and to speak with the curators of Quaker collections like Chris Densmore at Swarthmore, Mary Ellen Chijioke at Guilford, and Tom Hamm, in whose library at Earlham we spent several days that December. So we’ve been in good contact with these and other Quaker historians who helped us enormously along the way.
I think that it’s safe to say, and I think Vanessa would agree, that the book kind of took on a life of its own. It’s definitely taken longer than any of us imagined.
AC: What are your hopes for the book, among Quaker readers and non-Quaker readers?
DM: My hope for Quakers is that it will recreate some sense of our calling to work for equality, and a better perspective on the fact that we have not been as faithful in that testimony as we might like to think. One of my favorite quotations is from Carter G. Woodson, an African American who was the first historian to write African American history the way it deserves to be written, and who started the Journal of Negro History: “Truth comes to us from the past”¦ like gold washed down from the mountains.” I hope that this book will be in a sense the truth washing down to give us ground for our work as Quakers. Awakening Friends noticeably and for the long term would fulfill my hopes and all the work would be worth it.
I also have found non-Quakers to be quite interested in what we were doing in our past, since they too are familiar with the myths about our historic work against racism. Like Friends, they are surprised to learn that Quakers weren’t “running” the Underground Railroad, or that not all were dedicated abolitionists like Lucretia Mott. My hope would be that both “ordinary” non-Quakers would read the book as well as people in leadership positions in other denominations, or who teach church history. I hope this might inspire them to do similar work for their denomination if they have not already. Some denominations worked against enslavement early on, but then found justification for pulling away when their churches in the North and South began to split. It’s interesting that though Quakers may have disagreed about enslavement and even disowned some of those most active in trying to end it, we didn’t have that kind split in the Society between northern and southern Friends. We did find other things to divide over, but not slavery.
AC: What other paradigms do you think the book is challenging?
DM: The things I’ve learned about Reconstruction after the Civil War have been challenging and highly influential on how I view racism today. I was a history major at a very respectable college but count myself among those who managed to graduate with very little real understanding of that period other than something about carpetbaggers, the Freedman’s Bureau, and “forty acres and a mule.” It turns out that not until the last several decades has the real history of Reconstruction been written.
Now I am aware that a common misconception about emancipation is that it actually gave African Americans a chance to make something of themselves, but that they just couldn’t make it happen, leading some people to conclude that, well, there is “something wrong with them.” That “something wrong with them” idea was fostered by a purposeful campaign after the Civil War to “prove” that people of African descent were inferior and therefore, and not coincidentally, were suited only for manual labor, preferably in the cotton fields of the South for very little pay. Academics turned out books and articles purporting to give “evidence” of a hierarchy of races, with people of African descent at the low end and, well, we don’t have to even speculate about who was at the top.
I’ve learned that it was a myth that after the Civil War the people who were freed actually had the opportunity to make a good life for themselves. Yes, there were a good number of free and (after the Civil War) newly freed African Americans who did manage to get a good education, start businesses, and become community and church leaders, but the simple fact was that the large majority ended up staying where they already were as sharecroppers, a system that many historians agree was just another form of slavery; in fact, in some ways it was worse, because their freedom was just an illusion.
The people in the North supported the existing system in the South; after all, cheap labor was a great benefit for the owners of textile mills using southern cotton or for the owners of the ships that brought the goods North or for the owners of the department stores that sold the goods, some Quakers among them all. This was the way it was essentially for the rest of the nineteenth century.
The myth of freedom and opportunity after the Civil War lingers in the racism that still exists, even for people who don’t see themselves as racist. For me, the biggest shift has been in understanding far more clearly why we have so many remnants left from the fact that Reconstruction never worked. The only thing it reconstructed was the southern economic system based on the cheap labor of African Americans maintained forcibly by an oppressive terrorist regime (lynching and the KKK being just a few examples) created by the powers-that-were in the South and ignored by the powers-that-were in the North.
AC: Are there any paradigms that Friends have about themselves that the book will challenge?
DM: When we talked to Margaret Hope Bacon about our surprise that Quakers weren’t fitting the images we might have had of them, she would say things like “Well, all the Quakers know that!” But, in all respect, I think Margaret is among a generation of Quakers who have been Friends for a long time if not a lifetime and have absorbed their Quaker history along the way (a lot from reading Margaret’s books!). Our history may be more real for those who live in Philadelphia. But my experience of today’s Friends is that large numbers, either because they’re rather new to Quakerism or haven’t read much of our history, really do believe that Quakers were leaders in working for freedom and then for equality of African Americans.
The subtitle of Fit for Freedom has the word “myth” in it, and that’s what we are challenging: myths. Like the myth that Quakers were the chief operators of the Underground Railroad — when really it was African Americans who did most of the work. They were the ones who escaped, with the help of their own African American contacts in the north, and, yes, sometimes aided by Quakers. Or the myth that we were leaders in the Civil Rights movement. In fact, it’s hard to come up with an accurate picture of just how many Quakers were involved in Civil Rights, because, with a few exceptions, they worked as individuals not as part of a corporate commitment of their meetings, monthly or yearly.
I think that the Quaker view of ourselves as being non-racist will be challenged. Our racial composition, with a tiny proportion of members who are not of European descent, is not an accident. If we’d been open to people of African descent from the beginning, our “Quaker face” would reflect our testimony of equality. But African Americans were not welcome—as our title says, and as our book will show, we helped them become free, but that didn’t mean we welcomed them to our Society, hence the title Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship.
AC: Do you want to add anything?
DM: This is the work that I’m called to do. I mentioned several times when “way opened” early on, but all along the way things have “just happened” that I think were not accidents but gifts because of this work. Sure, there’ve been times when I’ve thought “God, if you want me to do this work, can’t you make things easier?” but I still feel that this is exactly what I’m meant to do with my life at this point.
I’ll be 73 this year. I was 66 when we started—quite a big chunk of years at this stage. But it is such a gift to have something in my life that brings all the elements of my earlier years together—I love to write, I love history, and I’ve worked against racism ever since I can remember. I feel greatly blessed.
More about Donna McDaniel
I’ve had a great life so far—with more to come!
Looking back, I see many connections between where I have been led in some 50 years of working and my desire as a young woman to foster an understanding of democracy and equality so that as people and as a country we can fulfill the great promise of America.
The basics: I was born and lived briefly in Illinois but grew up mostly in Rhode Island. I have a B.A. in History from Tufts University and an M.Ed. from Boston University with additional graduate work in human development at Indiana University.
My several careers have included social studies teacher and guidance counselor, six of the 16 years spent with the Department of Defense Schools in Japan and Germany, and three teaching human development in two colleges. When it was time to move on, by “accident” (“serendipity” is the better word) I answered an ad to report on local news and found work that I loved from the first moment—reporting for the local daily newspaper on town government and other community events in Southborough, the town I’d lived in just three months.
Six years later I was elected Southborough’s first woman selectman (like a town councilperson). That experience led to a new job editing newsletters on property tax limitations and negotiating public disputes for MIT and Harvard Law School—which led to serving as a public information person in the division of state government that oversees municipal finance. Since 1989 I’ve been a freelance writer and editor and remain active in local government as an observer and occasional participant and biweekly columnist in the local weekly paper. All of this is an opportunity to live my belief that being able to govern ourselves well in a town of 10,000 is fundamental to democracy on a larger scale.
Beginning in 1985 I spent about ten years as a part-time volunteer with a program called “Youth At Risk” in Boston that was exactly as the name implies—for people in their teens whose lives were a step away from crisis who were given what could be their last chance. It was a difficult and inspiring opportunity to see young people, most of whom were African American, realize that they could rise above their circumstances and take responsibility for themselves. Knowing and loving these youth sealed my commitment to working against racism.
In 1988 I “just happened” to visit Framingham Friends Meeting nearby and, though I wasn’t even looking, discovered I had found a spiritual home. As early Quaker Robert Barclay wrote, For when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up and so I became thus knit and united unto them. [Apology, 1676].
Another “just happened” happened in 1989 when I met some members of Sharing A New Song (SANS), a chorus that shares music to bring people together. With SANS I served on the board for 10 years and traveled to the former USSR and the Baltics several times (singing with 17,000 people in Latvia!), South Africa (3 times and my favorite), Cuba, China, and, in 2007, to Louisiana to sing for and be with the Houma Indians in the bayous and volunteers in the lower ninth ward in New Orleans. Through SANS I got to know about the interracial Gospel choir known as Boston Community Choir with whom I’ve also been singing now for six years. Some of my dearest friends are in BCC and SANS; when we sing together, it is, to use a Quaker term, a “gathered” meeting—we feel the presence of the Divine.
AND the greatest of my great blessings are my two wonderful and loving sons (now 41 and 38) and their six children ranging from 16 to 8—David’s Kyle, Katelyn, Chase, Connor, and Emmy and Evan’s Anna, born in October 2005.