On a recent episode of PBS's Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Friends Historical Library Curator Christopher Densmore discussed the debate among Quakers on the issue and morality of slavery. The issue came up as part of the episode's examination of the ancestral pasts of married Hollywood couple Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick.
Densmore begins speaking at approximately the 25 minute mark and then again at minute 41. A partial transcript follows below.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: Around the same time as Kyra's fourth great-grandfather, Theodore, was purchasing a slave in Massachusetts, Kevin Bacon's sixth great-grandfather, a man named Samuel Atkinson, was tending his family farm in New Jersey. As a devout Quaker, Samuel found himself stuggling with the morality of the institution of slavery itself.
Christopher Densmore: When Quakers arrived in [the] 1650s, slavery already existed. And Quakers did own slaves in New York and Philadelphia and New Jersey.
HLG: We met with Christopher Densmore, the curator of the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College, to understand more deeply the Quakers shifting views about slavery.
CD: By the 1680s, Quakers clearly are unhappy with some of the aspects of slavery. But it really takes them to the 1750s before they come with a clear position that it's not just treatment of slaves, it's not just the African slave trade; it's a system that we can't make better. We can't make humane. It's fundamentally wrong.
HLG: Densmore showed us the minutes from Quaker meetings that described these debates about the issue of slavery and their eventual decision to call for its abolition.
CD: They will include one of the questions that every Meeting asks and that's whether Friends are clear of owning slaves. And the expectation is you're going to be able to answer that question, 'yes'...