Members and other Philadelphia Quakers gather at Green Street Friends meetinghouse in Germantown

💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.

A meeting group in Germantown is running a legal clinic this weekend as part of an effort to give reparations for Quaker involvement in American slavery.

The clinic, one in a monthly series, will focus on helping preserve the wealth of Black homeowners in the neighborhood. The events are the first iteration of Green Street Friends initiatives intended to return $500,000 to Black Germantown residents over the next decade.

This year’s goal is providing $50,000 in real estate and legal services, to address problems like tangled titles, wills, and deed transfers.

Since evolving beyond the post-Civil War framework of “40 acres and a mule,” the definition of reparations varies widely. At a time when the U.S. might roll back affirmative action, reparations can come across as outlandish, outrageous, or simply out of reach.

Recent polling suggests the belief that Black Americans simply don’t deserve reparations — as opposed to concerns about cost or difficulty of making them public policy — is the main reason a majority of Americans don’t support the idea.

Why does this group of Philadelphia Quakers buck the trend? As they tell it, the story goes as far back as George Fox and William Penn himself.

From ‘enlightened’ assumptions to facing reality

The 1688 Germantown Quaker Protest Against Slavery is famous for being the first documented petition against slavery from a religious body in the Thirteen Colonies. Along with their outsized involvement in the Underground Railroad and parts of the abolitionist movement, Quakers hold that fact in high esteem.

Green Street Friends is looking past those frequently celebrated facts to more foundational sites of “Quaker complicity,” said member Lucy Duncan, noting that Quakers in Philadelphia helped invent the penitentiary system.

“William Penn was the first slaveholder in Philadelphia, and there were many enslavers among Quakers in that particular time,” Duncan added. Penn is known to have purchased people off the first slave ship known to dock in Pennsylvania.

Quaker founder George Fox was also less than virtuous on the issue. Visiting his stepdaughter’s Barbados plantation in 1671, he promised the colonial governor he wouldn’t “teach the negroes to rebel.”

Fox’s lack of a clear stance on the institution of slavery had ripple effects for generations, writes historian J. William Frost, as Fox’s writings “could be used by conservative slave-owning Friends in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1701 to silence the abolitionists.”

Spotlighting these ties was helpful to the Green Street congregation, Duncan said. “We were clear that as a meeting Quaker community, that we did have complicity.”

Some of the less than shining moments the group discussed are still in living memory.

At the 1969 National Black Economic Development Conference, SNCC and Black Panther Party organizer James Forman issued the Black Manifesto, demanding U.S. religious institutions open their coffers to Black Power organizations.

Activist Muhammad Kenyatta — yes, grandfather of current U.S. Senate candidate and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta — was elected vice president of the conference and head of the Greater Philadelphia branch. The chapter demanded the Philadelphia Society of Friends pay $5 million over a few years, including an immediate payout of $500,000.

The Quakers were slow to respond, so Kenyatta went on hunger strike. He eventually condemned the city’s Quakers, writing that they were “dishonest about their history of racism and cowed by Black men who break the mold of that history and refuse to come to the Quakers as hat-in-hand supplicants.”

In the end, individual Quakers donated around $5,000 to the NBEDC, but no wider efforts were made.

Green Street’s road to reparations

Conversations about antiracism have been a Green Street meetinghouse mainstay since 2014.

The discussions were spurred, in part, by the diversity of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. That’s the name for the regional Quaker group that includes the area from Harrisburg to Philadelphia, all of New Jersey and Delaware, and parts of Maryland.

“For many people, their meeting that they grew up in was all white. And all the Quakers they knew were white,” Gabbreell James, a Black Quaker and Germantown resident, told Billy Penn.

James, who grew up in a Quaker community in New Jersey, has written about feeling unwelcome at meetings in Philly — until she went to Green Street. After a few years, she made the move from being an attendee to becoming a full member.

In 2017, Green Street’s meetinghouse needed significant structural repairs, and a contractor gave them a quote that ran into the hundreds of thousands. James was one of a few who were shocked when a member with knowledge of the meeting’s finances said they could afford it — they could “just pay it.”

“A bunch of us were like, ‘Just pay it? So you mean we have money?’” James recounted at a Philadelphia Yearly Meeting gathering.

With that insight came reflection on what that money should be used for. Green Street member Lola George led a six-month “spirituality of money” workshop, where the congregation worked harder to understand class distinctions and view money as “a covenant” and “a promise.”

Duncan stressed that while guilt and shame were an aspect of reconsidering history, it was the desire to stop leaning on those feelings — which can keep people “stuck,” in her view — that led white members to support the efforts.

“We wanted to really raise consciousness [of] the way that our socialization as white people would create defenses to really moving deeply into this work,” she said.

At the end of the process, Green Street’s Reparations Committee was launched.

After beginning with fits and starts, it kicked into full gear in 2020, and the group settled on what reparations would mean for them: 50% of what’s known as the “surplus” — funds after subtracting what’s needed to maintain meeting activities — will be put towards reparative justice efforts.

Upon reaching that conclusion, the congregation bookmarked half a million dollars of surplus to spend over the course of a decade, roughly $50,000 dollars a year.

Another important principle: the decision of how to spend those funds rests solely with Green Street’s Black members and attendees.

This year’s effort: A clinic for Black homeowners

Out of several options, Green Street settled on starting with the legal clinics. The plan is to hear concerns about tangled titles, deed transfers, and estate planning from Black homeowners or potential homeowners who live in zip codes 19144 and 19138.

James, the former New Jerseyan who found a welcoming Quaker home at Green Street, noted that tangled titles were a common occurrence when she worked for the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation. “People … would come in, and the deed would be in their grandma’s name, or in their uncle’s name, or something like that,” James said.

“Many times … they could not or did not have the extra couple hundred dollars to switch it over to do the probate work to make the house theirs — even though they were the ones living there, and they were the ones paying the taxes and everything on it.”

Green Street’s legal clinic work may go beyond helping with wills, tangled titles, and deed transfers, James added.

“We have not determined exactly what we’re willing to pay and not pay. So we tell people: ‘Come to us, it could be old taxes, it could be a really high water bill’ … there’s a million different things that can happen that mess up somebody’s chance of having free and clear ownership of their house.”

Not having your name on a deed can make you ineligible for various government grants and loans, like the city’s basic service programs. In other scenarios, a tangled title can make it easy to lose your house.

Law enforcement officials have uncovered multiple examples of deed theft, which is surprisingly common. Tangled titles have come to the fore in recent years as a housing issue that disproportionately affects Black Philadelphians, thanks in part to a Pew study on the topic and a high profile example that affected Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson.

The legal mixups around tangled titles are especially pertinent in areas that are rapidly gentrifying.

“Germantown is certainly one of the quintessential examples in the city of an area that, at times in the past, has had strong, strong property values — but certain pockets have not. I think that that is absolutely changing in that area,” said Kelly Gastley, Managing Attorney for Philadelphia VIP, a nonprofit that provides pro bono services for homeowners through a wide network of volunteer attorneys.

These volunteers are staffing this Saturday’s clinic, helping Green Street reserve as much money as possible for neighbors in need. A few months ago, Philadelphia VIPtrained Green Street members on how to have intake conversations to discern how best to help people in the neighborhood.

Philadelphia VIP’s Gastley noted that “preventative” work on legal issues is “in line with the spirit of reparations” — especially when considering the role of housing discrimination in historical and ongoing institutional racism.

Race vs. lineage: How Green Street fits into the contemporary reparations movement

Across the country, reparations have been getting revived attention, which has led to some acrimony, but also some steps toward actual implementation.

U.S. House Resolution 40, the longrunning legislative proposal to establish a commission to study American slavery and determine how reparations could work, reportedly has enough support to pass the House for the first time in its history. With control of the chamber in the balance this fall, the coming months will be a litmus test for President Joe Biden — who claimed while campaigning to support a commission — and for Democratic leaders, who have promised to support the legislation.

The state of California and many municipalities are jumping into the fray at a more local level. Amid varying efforts from grassroots lobbying groups to Evanston, Illinois, to the Jesuits, a simmering debate has started to approach a boiling point:

Who should receive reparations, all Black Americans, or only those who can trace their ancestry back to people enslaved in the U.S.?

Green Street’s James, who said she has also discussed the topic in other organizations, acknowledges the decision is a hard one. Some descendants of people enslaved in America find the inclusion of recent immigrants from the Black diaspora unfair, and unhelpful for the odds of reparations actually happening.

In March, California’s taskforce for reparations voted 5-4 in favor of a lineage-based program after much debate and testimony. Green Street, on the other hand, is opting to offer services for all Black Germantown neighbors.

Black members chose this route in part because of their general standing with the Black Germantown community. Green Street is one of the most racially and generationally diverse Quaker groups in the region — and, unlike many groups, growing in size. But as a body, they believe there’s still a palpable disconnect with their neighbors.

“We have a perception that Green Street has a gate and that despite our efforts at being welcoming, we envision that many Black Germantown neighbors do not have a perception of ‘Oh, yeah, that’s the place I want to go,’” said Duncan, the longtime member.

The congregation wants to build relationships through offering material support, hopefully leading to wider engagement and deeper connections. And Duncan doesn’t want this work to stay only in Germantown.

Speaking as a member of the Mayor’s Commission on Faith-Based and Interfaith Affairs, directed by Reverend Naomi Washington-Leapheart, Duncan noted that “we actually have a reparations campaign in which we’re inviting 100 majority white congregations into sincere reparations work … we’re trying to make this a movement in the city.”

James, who said she was priced out of West Philly decades ago, made the initial mission clear.

“We want to help stabilize the community,” James said. “We do not want Germantown to become University City. We want Germantown to be Germantown.”

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...