Know Your Archives: American Friends Service Committee Or Friends in Low Places

Today's post is a continuation of our "Know Your Archives" Series. Previous posts include information about the National Archives at College Park, American Antiquarian Society, LDS Church History Archives (and others related to the next generation of Mormon Studies), and the Archdiocese of New York, to name only a few. Readers embarking on their own research trips are invited to submit "Know Your Archives" pieces to Cara.

Our guest contributor is Guy Aiken, a PhD Candidate in American Religions at the University of Virginia. Guy's dissertation, "Quaker Relief and the Politics of Neutrality, 1919-1941: Triumph and Tragedy," will be about the American Friends Service Committee's massive child feeding programs in Germany after the Great War and in southern Appalachia during the Great Depression. In this post, Guy recalls his first introduction to the archivists of the American Friends Service Committee.

Guy Aiken

Deep in the bowels of the earth, a man sits alone at his desk. He is an archivist—no, more than that: he is a finding aid. Linear feet collapse comfortably in his brain. He mentally bestrides mountains of material like a colossus. He is Don Davis, archivist and finding aid for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Philadelphia.

According to Don, “The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is a Quaker based organization. Founded in the tumult of World War I, the AFSC provided relief to the civilian casualties of World War I and provided conscientious objectors a means by which they could contribute without being placed in a position to do harm to another human being. The AFSC operated relief missions throughout the world during and after both World Wars and afterwards worked in support of peace issues throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, Africa, Middle East, Latin America and Caribbean.  Currently the organization works on programs that promote lasting peace with justice, as a practical expression of faith in action.” The AFSC has thorough archival records of all of this work.

Well, ok, so maybe the archive isn't actually deep in the bowels of the earth, but only a few feet under ground. And maybe Don Davis doesn't have millions of documents filed individually in his brain like some extorting genius in Sherlock Holmes, but only the box or range of boxes where you're likely to find what you're looking for. Still, he is a friend (among Friends) in low places who, when asked where the finding aid is, points at his head. Where can I find documents about the AFSC being responsible for the initial publication of King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail"? Just ask Don. What about the AFSC's Rights of Conscience Fund for legal defense in civil liberties cases? Don knows. The AFSC's share of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947? The child feeding on both sides of the Spanish Civil War? The Quaker-Gestapo summit after Kristallnacht in December 1938? Yup, you guessed it.

Don and I met online. Two years ago when I started working on American Quakers in post-Great War Germany, where the AFSC teamed up with fellow Quaker Herbert Hoover and his European Children's Fund to feed millions of children and mothers slowly starving from war and blockade, I had no idea where to start. I had a small summer research grant from UVa and an "incomplete" in a graduate seminar I needed to, well, "complete." I poked around the library's online catalog until I found an article in Quaker History on the AFSC's feeding in Poland. I emailed the author (Lyn Back), who put me in touch with Don, who had me fill out a digital info sheet with my requested dates for visiting (second week of June 2013) and my research topic (AFSC child feeding in Germany). That was it.

Late May 2013. I've moved my trip up a week to avoid the men's U.S. Open (golf) outside Philly. I've borrowed a friend's digital camera. I'm ready to go. Then I get an email from Don. He's going to be out of town that Monday when I'm supposed to arrive. I'm momentarily dismayed. But he has an assistant (Nathaniel Doubleday). The assistant will be there. And he (Don) will set out some boxes.

Finally I'm there. Sure enough, boxes from 1920 are waiting for me tucked in a corner cubicle of the AFSC's Finance Department. Off the opposite corner sits the archive with its automated shelving—metal arms flexing and stretching atop the shelves—and its row upon row of boxes—gray sometimes fading impossibly into bright pink for the early years, tan or off-white for more recent times. My boxes are a dull gray.

The stories they hold are anything but. Hoover asked the AFSC in late 1919 to run the feeding in Germany. The AFSC was barely two-and-a-half years old, and had been founded primarily not as a relief agency but as an alternative to the armed forces for draft-eligible Quaker college boys and other conscientious objectors to the Great War. Yet these Quakers seized their chance to show the world what it meant to love one’s “enemies.” The first 18 AFSC volunteers crossed the Atlantic aboard an ocean liner whose cargo included the largest shipment of mail in history, and they arrived in Berlin via Hamburg just after the New Year, 1920. But the ship carrying their food had to turn around due to mechanical problems. A second ship docks at Hamburg—with whiskey instead of food. Meanwhile, parents in Saxony are reportedly selling their daughters for a sack of potatoes each. Finally, the first ship, now seaworthy, returns with food, and the first feeding takes place in Berlin at the end of February.

Five years later, about 30 AFSC volunteers have worked with about 30,000 German ones to feed one meal every day for six months to one quarter of all German children born between 1909 and 1919.

That’s about as far as I got in 2013. It’s two years later, and I’m spending the semester in Philadelphia to be close to the AFSC archive. I've discovered that some of the AFSC volunteers came back to humanitarian work in the US; one helped run the AFSC's feeding in Appalachia in the early 1930s. Others stayed vitally engaged with international affairs: one was named municipal commissioner of Jerusalem by the UN in 1948; another worked down the hall from H. L. Mencken as a foreign-affairs editor at The Baltimore Sun; still another accompanied John Nevin Sayre to Nicaragua in 1927-8 as part of a joint FOR-AFSC effort to keep US Marines and General Sandino from fighting each other. Several went back to Central Europe in the 1930s under the AFSC and helped Jews and non-Aryans emigrate from the Reich and its domains. And one wrote a devotional classic that got me interested in the whole story to begin with.

I take the train to Suburban Station in Center City almost every day—“suburban,” literally “below the city." If you got off the train and immediately tunneled due north for two blocks you’d end up in Don Davis’s office. He’s so equable he’d probably just smile, shake your hand, and ask you what you’d like to see. He’d show you the bathroom so you could clean off some of the dirt and rubble. And then you’d walk back into that corner cubicle and find your boxes waiting for you.


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