Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Quakers against racism: Catherine Impey and the Anti-Caste Journal


Anti-Caste was Britain’s first anti-racist journal. It was published from 1888 to 1895 by Catherine Impey (1847–1923), a Quaker woman from Somerset. It included reports on anti-lynching campaigns in the southern states of America, and on the work of prominent African American campaigners, as well as confronting issues of racism within the British Empire.

Impey believed that Anti-Caste should be a platform for black writers to “present their case before white races”. “The idea that colour has any place whatsoever in determining the relations between members of the human family towards each other must everywhere be wiped out,” she wrote.

Reflecting the journal’s stance of racial equality, rather than patronage, its masthead was changed after 18 months from “Devoted to the interests of coloured races” to “Advocates the brotherhood of mankind irrespective of colour or descent”.

Anti-Caste was sold for the nominal sum of 1/2d (one fifth of a modern penny) to cover postage, and while it had a modest subscription list of only 300, it typically had a circulation of 1,900 as subscribers passed on free copies. Hundreds of copies were distributed in the US in this way, for example via the YMCA.

Anti-Caste initially focused on questions of racism within the British Empire, particularly in India. In May 1890, the journal denounced the conditions for workers on Assam tea estates, calling them “a blot on the modern administration of India”.

However, one issue came to dominate much of the work of Anti-Caste – that of the lynching of black Americans in the southern United States. Following the abolition of slavery, this had become the dominant issue for black Americans. Impey had become interested in race relations in the US through visits made during the 1870s. She met several African-American campaigners, and in particular became friendly with Frederick Douglass. Douglass, an escaped slave and abolitionist, was now at the forefront of the anti-lynching campaign in the US.

In 1893, through Douglass, Impey invited Ida B Wells, a freed slave, anti-lynching campaigner and suffragist, to come to England to speak about the conditions suffered by African-American people following the abolition of slavery. In her autobiography, Crusade for Justice, Wells recalls working with Impey to mail out ten thousand copies of Anti-Caste, in preparation for her lecture tour. That edition, from January 1893, included a photograph, still shocking today, of children posing beside the body of a black man who had been lynched.

Several British papers covered the speeches given by Wells in detail. In Newcastle where she was joined by the Dominican Methodist minister, Samuel Jules Celestine Edwards, the crowd they drew was so large, the meeting had to be divided in two, with each of them addressing one half of the group in turn. In Birmingham, where she spoke at the YMCA assembly rooms, the audience repeatedly cried, ‘Shame!’ as she described the introduction of segregation laws and the lives claimed by lynch mobs.

Meanwhile, Impey had developed an affection for a Sri Lankan dentist involved in the campaign, a fact which became known via a letter. One of her fellow campaigners, a Mrs Mayo, was scandalised and demanded that Impey withdraw from the campaign. Impey refused, and although Wells remained loyal to her, it had a dampening effect on the tour which, although it generated a great deal of interest and sympathy for the cause, failed as a fund-raising effort.

The tour did lead to the establishment of two organisations, the British Anti-Lynching Society and the Society for the Recognition of the Brotherhood of Man. The latter had its own journal, Fraternity, edited by Edwards, who became Britain’s first black editor. Fraternity was an altogether larger enterprise than Anti-Caste, and feeling perhaps that its shoes had been filled, Impey ceased publication. However, only a year later, Edwards died and Fraternity was unable to continue without its editor and chief backer. Consequently, in 1895, Impey published one final volume of Anti-Caste, of which only three editions are known.

Impey continued to campaign on various issues until her death in 1923. She was a suffragist and a vegetarian, and supported conscientious objectors during the First World War. However, she never returned to the work of Anti-Caste and her obituary barely mentioned her role in championing racial equality.

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