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Sidwell Friends and Integration

Now that we have been told that the Obama’s have selected Sidwell Friends school for their daughters, Sasha and Malia, I thought it might be interesting to explore the history of the school, which I was vaguely aware of when I lived in DC, and whose name had cropped up in my studies of the Society of Friends and their role in the debates over slavery and segregation in this country.  

Not much information was available at Wikipedia but it gave me a starting point:

Sidwell Friends School is a pre-K-12 Quaker private school located in the United States with one campus in Washington, D.C. and one campus in the Bethesda unincorporated area in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Sidwell was founded in 1883 by Thomas Sidwell. Its motto is Eluceat Omnibus Lux (“Let the light shine out from all”; it can also be translated as “by all,” an allusion to the Quaker concept of inner light). All Sidwell Friends students attend Quaker meetings for worship weekly.

Sidwell’s website had a more in depth history.

Thomas Watson Sidwell opened Friends’ Select School (as Sidwell Friends was then known) in 1883 as an initiative in co-ed, urban day-school education. Sidwell, then 24 years old, had been a teacher at Baltimore Friends School, headed at the time by Eli Lamb, a leading Quaker educator. Lamb opened the way for Sidwell to begin a school in Washington by sponsoring authorization of the venture within the Baltimore Yearly Meeting. While the Alexandria Monthly and Baltimore Yearly Meetings offered some nominal assistance, this was, from the beginning, a proprietary operation.

Sidwell’s school began with eighteen students in rooms that were part of the Friends Meeting House located in the 1800 block of I Street, four blocks from the White House. Just twenty years after Friends’ Select opened its doors, Sidwell’s school-with fully elaborated primary, intermediate and high school departments-enrolled nearly 200 students. Several buildings, including one of the first gymnasiums to be built in Washington, were eventually added to the I Street campus.

Of interest to me was the timeline on their history page which included this nugget:

1956 The first African-American student, Jeffrey Mazique, is admitted to Kindergarten.

My family members in DC, and in the neighboring areas of Maryland, and  Loudoun County Virginia attended segregated schools.  They went on to attend some of the finest Negro institutions of higher learning in the area.  

Some of the grade schools they went to were assisted in their establishment by southern Friends, or Quakers; some attendees of the Goose Creek Meeting also participated as conductors for the Underground Railroad.  The Society of Friends historically was split over the idea of slavery and secession, and in Loudoun County VA, most of the Friends in the town of Waterford voted against leaving the Union.  


Waterford voted 221-36 against secession (Loudoun County voted 2-1 for)

Samuel McPherson Janney from Loudoun was a noted anti-slavery activist

Janney’s anti-slavery efforts included founding Sunday schools and day schools for African American children, lobbying the District of Columbia to abolish slavery, and supporting emancipation and colonization societies. In 1869 his lifelong interest in the welfare of Native Americans led him to become a Government Superintendent of Indian Affairs for seven tribes based in Omaha, Nebraska. When ill health forced him to resign from this position, he returned to Loudoun County, where he died in 1880.

But though many Quakers worked in the anti-slavery movement, and continued to  assist the Negro during reconstruction, this did not mean that they necessarily supported or worked towards integration.  Notable Quakers assisted in the establishment of “separate but equal schools” and churches for emancipated blacks.

The law of the land was governed by Plessy v. Ferguson:

Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), is a landmark United States Supreme Court decision in the jurisprudence of the United States, upholding the constitutionality of racial segregation even in public accommodations (particularly railroads), under the doctrine of “separate but equal”.

The decision was handed down by a vote of 7 to 1, with the majority opinion written by Justice Henry Billings Brown and the dissent written by Justice John Marshall Harlan, with Justice David Josiah Brewer not participating in this case. “Separate but equal” remained standard doctrine in U.S. law until its final repudiation in the later Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

Separate and Unequal in DC.

Though there is a wealth of material available about public school integration, it was more difficult to find studies dealing with private institutions, like Sidwell Friends. For an in depth  look into the integration of Sidwell, I am relying on the book “Visible Now: Blacks in Private Schools

by Diana T. Slaughter, Deborah J. Johnson; Greenwood Press, 1988.

School History

Quakers have sponsored schools since the earliest days of their society, in part to share with their children the particular spiritual illumination that led them to the Society of Friends, and in part because their religious convictions persuaded them to endorse a form of schooling somewhat different from what was the norm. The private school under consideration is located in the nation’s capital and was established in 1883 as a Friends School. At the time, there were forty-five White and eleven “colored” schools, as well as tutors, small private academic establishments, and Catholic high schools in the city. Located in a prime residential area, the school became prestigious and for decades drew students from the diplomatic corps, military, congress, government, and other influential families.

In 1888, the Meeting divested itself of the school, allowing the headmaster to operate it as a proprietary institution. It was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1934 as a “school that strives in a quiet way to develop in its pupils a high regard for ideas of simplicity.” 9 Its charter required that the Board of Trustees be composed of a majority of Friends, thus assuring that the Friends Meeting maintained a strong role in the school. Still respected for its high academic standards, the school strives to “offer an education of uncommon excellence to a diverse group of academically talented students within a Quaker setting.” 10

In the mid- 1950s, following the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, the Meeting was challenged by the community and the moral climate of the nation itself to reconsider its segregationist policy. Until that time, most Quakers had accepted the idea of “separate but equal” education for Blacks, and the School’s Board of Trustees, led by people raised in the South, was reluctant to change its policy. A major concern was the need to provide an environment in which children “would associate with other young people whom they might freely invite to their home[s] and in which their acquaintances and future husbands and wives were suitable from the standpoint of race and morals.

While the Board at Sidwell debated Brown, it is important to look at the situation in DC’s public schools during that time period.

School integration in DC:

The “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson hardly applied to Washington’s public schools before 1954. In the first half of the 20th century, many of Washington’s whites moved into nearby suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, while many blacks began moving into the city. This led to overcrowding of the black public schools while underenrollment was the norm in the white schools. School construction stopped during World War II, and although construction of black schools began in earnest after the war, it was not enough to stop the overcrowding. Many black students began attending schools in double or even triple shifts; one group of students might attend school from 8:00 AM to 12:00 PM and the next group would come in at 12:45 PM and stay until 5:15 PM. Students at the all-black Browne Junior High School attended school in this double shift in 1947, as the school was over capacity by about 700 students. [1] Students at the neighborhood all-white junior high school, however, attended school on a single shift, and the school had about 150 open places. Some Browne parents went to court, demanding that their children be admitted to the white junior high. In response to this class action suit, D.C. school officials eliminated the double shift at all black public schools in 1948, and in 1950, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled against the Browne parents in a 2-1 decision.

There was however a legal victory on the horizon, not as well known as the Brown vs the Board of Education decision and the lesser known decision of Bolling vs. Sharpe:

Although the black plaintiffs from D.C.’s Browne Junior High lost their class action suit against the schools in 1950, they had one small victory in the opinion of the dissenting judge, Henry Edgerton. He wrote that “School segregation is humiliating to Negroes…It ‘brands the negro with the mark of inferiority and asserts that he is not fit to associate with white people.'” [2] Emboldened by this statement, an attorney named James Nabrit took up the case of Spottswood Bolling, Jr., a black student. Nabrit did not try to argue that the black schools were inferior to the white schools; instead, he gave the District government the task of showing a reasonable basis for school segregation. Bolling’s case went before the Supreme Court and the Court ruled in his favor in Bolling v. Sharpe, decided at the same time as the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954.

Shifting back to the private sector, at Sidwell Friends the Trustee’s attempted to deal with the changing legal landscape.  Slaughter and Johnson report:

Thus it was not until January 1956, after several years of debate, that the Board of Trustees adopted a policy of “one-grade-a-year integration of admissions and to open the kindergarten to qualified Negro applicants in the fall of 1956.” 12 As a result of this decision, a few parents, including Senator James O. Eastland of Mississippi, chose to take their children elsewhere, but many others were waiting to take their places. 13

The decision to integrate was rather late in coming. Some independent schools in northern cities, such as Phillips Academy, Phillips Exeter, and Northfield Mount Hermon, had been admitting Blacks for nearly a century. In fact, soma Friends schools had had Black students for at least twenty years. 14 Moreover, although the school began its one-grade-a-year admissions policy in 1956, it was not until 1963, fully a decade after the Supreme Court decision, that the policy was liberalized to admit Blacks to all grades.

At about the same time, in March 1964, contributions to a Black Student Fund were solicited from individuals to help low-income Blacks attend the school on either partial or full scholarship. During the early years of integration, Black children were recruited by the Black Student Fund or were enrolled by parents who selected the school because of its reputation and educational standards. Few efforts were instituted to recruit more affluent Blacks from the large Black professional population in the city. Since the 1963 decision to integrate, enrollment in the Upper School has increased from thirteen Black students (less than 5 percent) to 121 Black students (12.5 percent) in 1975 and 158 Black students (15.5 percent) in 1986.

Once integrated, black students at Sidwell Friends still faced problems of adjustment, and the school also had to assess what changes it needed to make.  Parents of newly enrolled black students expressed several areas of dissatisfaction.  Parents and Board members met to examine the challenges faced by minority students at Sidwell and the school ultimately issued a report: Sidwell Friends Board of Trustees, Diversity at the Sidwell Friends School.

From the book:

During the two and one-half decades since integration, two parent groups have been active outside the school. Both groups were formed to help alleviate some of the covert prejudice and to enrich the school environment. Many issues have surfaced. In brief, the groups have recommended that the school needs to:

•  Further promote the ethnic identity, self-concept, motivation, and leadership abilities of Black children  

•  Hire more Black teachers to serve as role models  

•  Recruit more minority students  

•  Involve minority parents as resources to supplement children’s education  

•  Create an environment that fosters the interaction of Black children and parents  

•  Enable Black parents to interact more fully in the school  

•  Obtain more information on the effects of education for both Black and White children of comparable abilities in this and other settings  

•  Increase discussion regarding children’s experiences in the school  

•  Expand Black parent involvement in all phases of school activities  

The Diversity Report in response to the concerns raised by parents was issued in 1986.  

This responsiveness can be attributed to several factors, the most significant of which lies in the inherent Quaker philosophy of the school.The Society of Friends has historically been strongly concerned with the need to provide equality of opportunity between the sexes and among races, cultures, and economic classes. Fundamental Quaker philosophy emphasizes the value of experiential learning. Certainly, learning experiences are greatly enhanced by the diversity of the student body. Quaker philosophy also stresses the belief in “that of God in every man,” which means learning to recognize and value what is special and good in each person. The Board of Trustees stated that this belief would be enhanced if students encountered diverse religions, nationalities, values, races, and economic conditions and if they learned to assess the meaning of such differences.Finally, Quakers adhere to the belief that individuals have intrinsic value and worth regardless of extrinsic differences of race, color, creed, and economic status.

Thus, the foundations of a Quaker belief in the value of a diverse student body can be said to depend on a Quaker commitment to schools that are socially relevant, that provide environments for experiential learning and to teach students about spiritual worth of all people, irrespective of their overt identities.


According to Slaughter and Johnson:

The Diversity Report was generally well-received by Black parents. Its recommendations coincided remarkably with the needs outlined in meetings of Black parents. Moreover, they were consistent with research findings regarding the conditions necessary for optimum integration of Black students into a predominantly White school setting.

The School now has an active Diversity Advisory Group and Diversity Teams.

The Diversity Advisory Group (DAG) advises and educates the School’s constituencies on matters related to economic, racial, ethnic and religious diversity, as well as gender and sexual orientation. The coordination of diversity initiatives and the mediation of specific diversity-related issues also fall under its purview


Here is Sidwell’s current demographic profile:

   * 2004-2005 school year: 1,091 students (563 boys and 528 girls) are enrolled

   * 38% of the student body belong to ethnic minorities

   * 21% of the student body receives some form of financial assistance

   * The School employs 145 teachers and 98 administrative and support staff.

   * Tuitions for the 2007-2008 school year are $28,442 (prekindergarten-grade 4) and $29,442 (grades 5-12).[2]

   * The school never releases its SAT average scores or college admission list. However, the school releases to the most recent alumni class a list of which institutions each recently graduated student is attending.

   * The school does not rank its students, as this conflicts with the Quaker Testimony of Equality.

For those not familiar with the philosophies and beliefs of the Society of Friends a wealth of information can be found at The Religious Society of Friends, and there is other information of interest on the pages of the American Friends Service Committee.

Wiki provides a link explaining the aforementioned Testimony of Equality:

The Quaker Testimony of Equality:

The Testimony of Equality is the Quaker belief that all people are created equal in the eyes of God. This Testimony has prompted Quakers to participate in actions that promote the equality of the sexes and the races, as well as other classifications of people.

Like the other Quaker testimonies, the Testimony of Equality is not a fixed and formalized creed. Rather it is the expression of the practices and principles of Friends that gradually emerged. It is open to modification by Friends as they meet together and receive guidance from the Spirit of Christ.

Quakers, or Friends as they call themselves, believe that since all people embody the same divine spark all people deserve equal and fair treatment.

I wish Sasha and Malia well at their new school, and hope you have found this glimpse into its history of integration interesting.

Cross-posted at Daily Kos


  1. Strangely enough, I learned quite a bit about the Friends from James Michener’s novel, Chesapeake. Great book. Interesting religious group. Unlike many more fundamentalist sects, the Friends actually seem to believe that Jesus meant what he said about loving your neighbor.

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