From the Revolutionary War to COVID-19: The History of Wilmington Friends

Read Sameer Vidwans’ account of the history of Wilmington Friends students as they have lived through our nation’s greatest historical events.

Sameer Vidwans, Community Writer

The average public school building is forty-two years old. By contrast, Wilmington Friends has been teaching generations upon generations of students for a grand total of 272 years. Most students at Friends know that the school was started in 1748, and some know that it first began in a Quaker Meetinghouse, before moving to a school building. But, hardly anyone knows much about how Friends managed throughout all of America’s history. Let’s dive into our own personal history, now: the story of how WFS has grown and changed from 1748 to 2020.

Wilmington Friends School was founded in 1748 by several members of the Wilmington Monthly Meeting of Friends. The school’s original goal was to provide education for children whose parents belonged to the Society of Friends, as well as children from lower economic classes. Mr. Maguire, the school Archivist, stated, “There was no public school at the time, and Wilmington Monthly Meeting provided the only possible education for Wilmington’s poor.” Friends never discriminated based on race, religion, or the family’s financial circumstances. Years ago, Mr. Maguire found a parchment document from 1793 with pledges for the education of poor children. There is also an attachment from 1777 of someone leaving such funds in their will. “Though Friends has had a number of rich people, it has often had a wide cross-section of society,” Mr. Maguire commented.

The first major historical event that Wilmington Friends School endured was the American Revolution. The Wilmington Monthly Meeting (as it was still called at the time, later to be known as Wilmington Friends) tried to remain neutral in regard to the event. Most Quakers kept neutral, though that was difficult, as they were accused of being traitors by both sides. There were some younger Quakers who chose to join the Patriot cause, with one of Washington’s subordinate generals born a Quaker. However, when those Patriot Quakers returned from the war, many of them found that they had been read out, or expelled from their meetings, as the Meeting was fervently against war of any kind.

In a conversation with Mr.Maguire, Wilmington Friends School Archivist, he detailed this process of becoming involved in war efforts and the inter-relational changes that resulted. This is an interesting part of the history of the school, as it reflects its grounded value sets and how the consequences of violating them have changed over time. “There were very rich Quakers who lived in Philadelphia, and some of them abandoned their Quaker principles and ‘hobnobbed’ with British troops. One example is of Peggy Shippen, who was born from a Loyalist Philadelphian family and eventually married the traitor Benedict Arnold. However, those of 4th & West were not of that ilk,” Mr. Maguire stated.

Though Delaware was a slave state until after the Civil War, the Quakers of Wilmington were always vehemently against slavery, and many in the Wilmington area even participated in the efforts of the Underground Railroad.  Mr. Maguire discovered that “Though the Wilmington Monthly Meeting was against the war, a great number of young men from the Meeting went off to war. One even received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Unlike the time after the Revolutionary War, most of them were forgiven by their meeting once they returned. Years ago I came across a listing of students from the 1850s and 1860s, and dozens of former students had military ranks attached to their names. Apparently, many joined.” Therefore, while the conditions for serving did change amongst the local Quaker group, the same sentiments towards war were shared despite the events.

Both of the World Wars went in a similar direction as the Civil War for Friends students, with many members of the Friends community enlisting in the wars. WFS became more friendly towards the idea of war, with a Whittier article in 1919 named, “Our Returning Crusaders,” referring to the American troops coming home after WWI. However, these reactions seemed to take a turn for the worse during WWII.  

Have you heard of the Mendenhall Award at Friends? You might be surprised by the history it has. “John Mendenhall, after whom the school’s highest honor is named, was so honored because he was killed in WWII. He was a Marine fighter pilot. Enormously popular with and respected by his classmates, he was also a Quaker. One of the most poignant things (Mr. Maguire) ever found in the archives was an alumni magazine, featuring a photo of John standing next to his plane, with a lengthy letter to the School Principal, Wilmot Jones, describing life in the South Pacific in 1944. Later in the issue, there was a brief note that said, ‘word had been received that John had been killed,” said Mr.Maguire, in detailing the relationship of World War II to the famed Mendenhall Award. Almost as if to create a brighter beginning after the World Wars, Principal Wilmot Jones of Wilmington Friends went on a sabbatical, touring Europe, and ended up making connections to schools from four different countries, which was the beginning of WFS’s involvement with the American Friends Society. Wilmington Friends was one of the first seven schools to join the program. “WFS students were then and to this day seem very enthusiastic about connecting with other cultures and nations,” said Mr. Maguire.

One major event that had not yet occurred in WFS history was the closing of school due to disease; not only a disease, in fact, but one that spread to a pandemic. Despite other diseases in Friends’ 272 years, ranging from the Spanish Flu to Smallpox to SARS, 2020 is the first time a disease has stopped school. Thanks to COVID-19, commonly known as the novel coronavirus, WFS and its friendly campus is closed until the 15th of May. There are more than 1,900,000 novel coronavirus cases around the world (as of April 13th, 2020), and that number is rising each day. The US has the most confirmed cases globally as of April 13th, coming in at more than 576,000 cases. Unfortunately, more than 23,000 people have already died in the US.

However, despite the trying times we are going through, we all need to “Keep Calm and Carry On!” Eventually, everything will be alright. So even if you feel afraid or sad or confused, try to stay strong. And if you can’t, motivate yourself with the fact that you are living through history – just like students at Friends did from 1748 to today!