Apology to Afro-Descendants, Background Notes
Notes by European American Quakers Working to End Racism Working Group
History: Creating and seasoning an Apology
New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM) approved a minute on race and racism (#2009-07-43) on July 24, 2009 that concluded, “We will move with the spirit to seek justice, healing and reconciliation within our Yearly Meeting.” One motion of love and justice that has emerged is apologizing to Afro-descendants for slavery. ("Afro-Descendants" is a term now officially in use by the United Nations to identify the more than 250 million descendants of enslaved Africans dwelling in North America, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Slavery Diaspora.)
The seed for this action was sown around 2002, when Leroy Mahesh Thomas, a Quaker of African descent, was led to ask NYYM to apologize for its involvement in the historic enslavement of African Americans and the aftereffects of slavery.
In the years following, Friend Thomas' request was heard and seasoned in various places. European American Quakers Working to End Racism (EAQWER) took part in a workshop, led by Friends of Color, on slavery and its aftermath. We were moved to draft an Apology as a step toward healing. It was printed in Spark (NYYM's print newsletter) in January 2008. At summer sessions in 2008 and 2009, a total of about 90 Friends signed the document. Some monthly meetings (congregations) were inspired to endorse the Apology or write their own version.
In January 2010, EAQWER forwarded its draft to the Task Group on Racism, which brought it forward to Ministry Coordinating Committee. Ministry Coordinating Committee (MCC) endorsed a new draft of the Apology and at Summer Sessions of NYYM in 2011 (Minute # 2011-07-74) asked monthly meetings to consider the Apology. The document was further seasoned by both Friends of Color and European American Friends, in committee, in a prison worship group, in monthly meetings, and in interest groups at Summer Sessions. MCC then brought a revised version of the Apology to Fall Sessions 2013 for the Yearly Meeting’s consideration. The Apology to Afro-Descendants was approved during those sessions on November 17, 2013.
Friends who are considering the Apology may have questions about various elements. Questions tend to fall into three categories: Why are we apologizing? To whom is this Apology addressed? Who is apologizing?
Do we apologize, acknowledge, or regret?
Apologizing accomplishes three specific goals: 1) to admit wrongdoing; 2) to claim responsibility; 3) to express remorse. All three elements are essential.
The first element informs the people harmed that the perpetrators recognize the harm they did was/is real. Admitting wrongdoing offers perpetrators the relief of confessing what may have been hidden or denied. It is an important part of healing.
Part two, claiming ownership, is one of the most powerful actions human beings can take. Resisting the urge to point fingers, or to claim helplessness or ignorance of misdeeds, we step up and declare we were/are involved.
The third element, expressing remorse, is crucial because it affirms the humanity of everyone involved. It is human to feel pain when we are hurt, and human to feel upset when we have caused pain. Expressing sadness about the harm we did helps reconnect us to the people we hurt.
The Apology to Afro-descendants is written 1) to admit terrible harm was done to Africans and Afro-descendants; 2) to own that New York Yearly Meeting was and is involved in that harm; 3) to confess the grief and sorrow of our Yearly Meeting.
Some Friends have preferred to say “We regret” rather than “We apologize.” This fulfills the necessity of expressing human feeling, but leaves out ownership.
Other Friends have suggested we “acknowledge” rather than "apologize." This leaves out remorse and ownership.
Our Apology must be a faithful statement in every way, authentically admitting harm, responsibility and remorse … and followed up by discerning which new actions we must take to set things right.
If that's what an apology is, what's an apology for? Why apologize to Afro-descendants for slavery?
Beyond the obvious, which is that it is critical in the work of reconciliation to say “Sorry” and mean it, an apology can serve other purposes. In drafting this Apology, writers have worked to educate Friends about what actually happened. Quakers have a reputation for racial justice work historically. But many of us are unaware of the ways in which Friends have fallen short as racial justice advocates.
Another purpose of the Apology is inspiration. Just as apologies issued by the Episcopal Church and other groups have inspired many of us, we hope this Apology will inspire other Quakers to take action. No yearly meeting has apologized to date.
Another purpose of this Apology is to recognize that the harm is ongoing. Some Friends ask why apologize for something so long ago. But the past is still very much with us. Although slavery itself was abolished in 1865, the 13th amendment allows enslavement of the “duly convicted.”* The Apology acknowledges this connection between historical slavery and the US’s modern system of mass incarceration of black and brown people, whose lives are devastated by a criminal record. Moreover, the original system of chattel slavery paved the way to present-day discrimination against African Americans in every sector of life. In very real ways, people of African descent are still in chains.
* The 13th amendment reads: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. [Emphasis added.]
To whom do we apologize?
Several authors, including Dr. Joy Leary, Manning Marable, and Randall Robinson, have documented “generational drag,” the multitude of ways present-day Afro-descendants are still enmeshed in the aftereffects of slavery. This Apology is addressed to the more than 250 million descendants of enslaved Africans who live every day with the legacy of slavery.
It also acknowledges that the system of white privilege which arose in tandem with systemic racism provides daily, lifelong advantages to white people as a group. The Apology is addressed to a group of people who have been kept outside that system of benefits and privileges.
The Apology is addressed uniquely to Afro-descendants and not to the members of other groups who have been harmed, past or present. Apologies are due those communities too. However, it weakens an apology to make a broad laundry list. There is power and accountability in focusing on one issue at a time.
Many Friends want to know how Friends of African descent react to this Apology. As mentioned above, the Apology was originally requested by an African American Friend. Friends of Color have been consulted from the beginning. As with any group, there has been a wide spectrum of response from African American Quakers. Some have dismissed the Apology as flawed or not helpful and others have enthusiastically welcomed it. A number of revisions have been made to the original document to reflect critiques from African American Friends. Outside the Religious Society of Friends, many individuals and organizations of color have demanded apologies for historic abuses, and have expressed profound appreciation when apologies were made.
Finally, we look at who is apologizing. The Apology is offered on behalf of New York Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. It is being issued by an institution, not by individual Friends.
Some Friends have questioned how an institution can apologize. It has already been done, numerous times. Worldwide, a variety of apologies have been issued, by educational institutions, business corporations, religious organizations, governments, and families. Several books now document such apologies.
Jennifer Lind reports in Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics, “Governments increasingly offer or demand apologies for past human rights abuses, and it is widely believed that such expressions of contrition are necessary to promote reconciliation between former adversaries. The post-World War II experiences of Japan and Germany suggest that international apologies have powerful healing effects when they are offered, and poisonous effects when withheld.”
Some people ask, how can I sign this Apology, when I wasn't involved in slavery? No living individual was, but our Yearly Meeting was. A few details of its involvement are listed in the Apology.
Some Friends have wondered how NYYM can apologize to Afro-descendants when some of our members are of African descent. Indeed, it is to these Friends that we first apologize. Since it is the institution which is apologizing, any individual can choose to join with the Apology as a member of our Yearly Meeting. Friends of African descent can both participate in and receive the Apology.
Some Friends worry we are unfairly judging Friends of a different time. This is not the intent of the Apology. Rather we remember earlier Friends with love, recognizing the struggles they faced as they tried to reconcile their faith with the practices of their world. It doesn't make them bad people if we apologize for their actions. We stand on the shoulders of those who went before and attempt to reshape the relationship of our Yearly Meeting to Afro-descendants. We are called to speak up in faith and joy as best we can according to the measure of light granted us.
The Apology is one step. True reconciliation and healing will require further steps. These might include: tackling the new system of slavery, our criminal (in)justice system; supporting a bill demanding New York State establish a commission to consider reparations to Afro-descendants; calling for revision of the 13th amendment; working to understand the reality of white privilege and how it shapes our Yearly Meeting. These goals will not be quick or easy to accomplish. The Apology is meant to help us better understand our past, open our hearts, heal broken relationships and help prepare the way to move forward.
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