Religious Society of Friends
Quakers in Arkansas, though small in number, have played an important role in education and race relations, providing teachers and schools for African Americans after the Civil War and organizing interracial programs during the school integration crisis.
The Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers, began in England during the religious ferment of the 1600s through the ministry of George Fox. Quakers believed that all people could develop a personal relationship with God without the intervention of traditional priests or rituals. They worshiped in silence until led to speak by the spirit. They developed testimonies of peace, simplicity, equality, and integrity. Friends’ local congregations are called Monthly Meetings and may affiliate with Quarterly and Yearly Meetings based on both geographical region and doctrinal relationships.
Quakers played an important role in the development of democracy in the United States. Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn to be a Quaker colony with a government developed around Quaker principles, including a peaceful relationship with Indians, religious liberty, and a democratic government.
The first evidence of Quakers in Arkansas is Charlotte Stephens’s memory of attending a Quaker school during the Civil War. The school was founded by a former slave, William Wallace Andrews (Stephens’s father), whose former owner, Chester Ashley, gave him a parcel of land on which to build a church and school. When Quaker missionaries came to set up schools, he gave them his school and went north to study. In 1868, when Little Rock (Pulaski County) organized its own public school system, it bought the school building.
After the Civil War, the Indiana Yearly Meeting founded a Freedmen’s Committee to assist people newly freed from slavery. In 1864, they sent to Arkansas Calvin and Alida Clark, who founded an orphanage and school in Helena (Phillips County). The school and orphanage later moved about nine miles from Helena, added a teacher training program, and was named Southland College. A number of students and neighboring black families joined the Society of Friends, and in 1873, the Indiana Yearly Meeting recognized the seventy-eight Southland Friends as an official Monthly Meeting.
By 1886, when the Clarks retired, there were five permanent buildings on the campus and nearly 300 students. Over 300 teachers had graduated by that time. Southland Monthly Meeting had a membership of nearly 400 members in three different locations. The school went through many difficulties during the first part of the twentieth century and eventually was “laid down” in 1925 as public schools became available. The Friends’ meetings that surrounded the school declined as families moved away. The last recorded meeting was in 1922.
The DeWitt Monthly Meeting was founded by Frank Fox in the 1930s. A native of DeWitt (Arkansas County), Fox studied religions and decided that the Quaker faith was closest to Christian values. He did not own a gun and selected for the meeting site “the worst part of town because they needed Christianity the most.” The church has moved twice since then. The DeWitt Monthly Meeting is affiliated with the Central Yearly Meeting, which is a group of Orthodox Friends who focus on the message of the living, indwelling Christ.
A Quaker worship group began informally in Little Rock in 1953. The Little Rock Meeting affiliated with the South Central Yearly Meeting and the Friends General Conference. Little Rock requested preparatory meeting status under Dallas in 1959 and became an official monthly meeting in 1981. The meeting purchased its present meetinghouse at 3415 West Markham in 1995. The Little Rock meeting in 2006 had seventeen members and thirty attendees. Meeting members have been active in civil rights and peace activities and, after Hurricane Katrina, built bunk beds for survivors. Tina Coffin of the Little Rock Monthly Meeting publishes a monthly magazine, the Carillon, for Quakers in Arkansas.
During the mid-1950s, the Little Rock Meeting organized interracial work camps for college students, giving black and white students from segregated campuses the opportunity to work together on projects such as painting and planting trees. The American Friends Service Committee also sent representatives who led small workshops to help black and white young people get to know each other. Quakers were involved with the Arkansas Council on Human Relations, which supported integration. During the desegregation of Central High School, Robert Wixom tutored Little Rock Nine member Ernest Green in physics once or twice a week and attended his graduation. After the schools were closed during the Lost Year, Thelma Babbit was sent by the American Friends Service Committee to organize race relations forums and promote dialogue. They organized two conferences on community unity, which brought together black and white leaders to talk about issues facing them.
Friends began meeting in Fayetteville (Washington County) in the late 1950s. They requested preparatory status under Little Rock in the late 1980s and became a monthly meeting affiliated with the South Central Yearly Meeting in 1998. They meet in United Campus Ministry and have eleven members and twenty-eight attendees.
The Caddo Worship Group began in 1989 with isolated Friends from southwest Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana who meet once a month for worship and study. It is now the Caddo Four States Preparatory Meeting under the care of the Little Rock Monthly Meeting and currently meets in Texarkana (Miller County). In 2006, it had ten members and thirteen attendees.
While Quakers remain a very small group in Arkansas, numbers—particularly in the Fayetteville and Caddo groups—have grown. Friends continue to be involved in human rights issues and play an active role in the peace movement.
For additional information:
Central Yearly Meeting of Friends. http://www.centralyearlymeetingoffriends.org (accessed February 19, 2007).
Kennan, Clara B. “The First Negro Teacher in Little Rock.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 9 (Autumn 1950): 194–204.
Kennedy, Thomas C. “The Rise and Decline of a Black Monthly Meeting: Southland, Arkansas, 1864–1925.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 50 (Summer 1991): 115–139.
———. “Southland College: The Society of Friends and Black Education in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 42 (Autumn 1983): 207–238.
Murphy, Sara A. Breaking the Silence: Little Rock’s Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1997.
South Central Yearly Meeting of Friends. http://www.scym.org/ (accessed May 1, 2007).
Little Rock Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends
Last Updated: 09/15/2017