April 18, 2022

I wanted to write about this because it is such a productive way to approach a touchy subject. A Quaker meeting in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia ran a legal clinic this weekend as part of an effort to make reparation for Quaker involvement in American slavery. Via BillyPenn.com:

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.

While many colonial-era Philadelphia Quakers were abolitionists, it's not as widely known that many of the Society of Friends (their official name) were slaveholders -- including William Penn.

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.”

The decision of how to spend the money was left to the Black members of the meeting, and they decided to start with the legal clinic.

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.”

[...] 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.

This is one useful model for people to make reparations for their part in the slave trade, and hopefully it will have a ripple effect and start some productive conversations.

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