An Episcopal seminary in Virginia has announced plans to create a $1.7 million endowment fund whose proceeds will support reparations for the school’s ties to slavery.
Virginia Theological Seminary said that enslaved persons worked on its campus and the school “participated in segregation” after the end of slavery.
“This is a start,” said the Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, president of the Alexandria-based seminary, in the statement. “As we seek to mark (the) Seminary’s milestone of 200 years, we do so conscious that our past is a mixture of sin as well as grace. This is the Seminary recognizing that along with repentance for past sins, there is also a need for action.”
A spokesman for the seminary said officials know of three buildings on its campus that were built with slave labor, including Aspinwall Hall, where the dean’s and admissions offices are located.
“We do want to honor those who worked in this place and we want to provide financial resources for their descendants,” said Curtis Prather, the seminary’s director of communications. “The Office of Multicultural Ministries will take the lead in the exhaustive research that will need to take place.”
Aspinwall Hall at Virginia Theological Seminary was one of three buildings on campus built with slave labor. Photo by John W. Cross/Creative Commons
The seminary, which was founded in 1823 but admitted its first African American student in 1951, raised the funds for the endowment with a capital campaign. School officials estimate that they will spend $70,000 annually from accumulated interest on reparations.
The decision comes as other institutions of higher learning, some with ties to religion, have mulled whether to offer forms of reparations or not.
In 2017, Georgetown University apologized for its involvement in the 1838 sale of more than 270 enslaved persons that kept the Catholic-run school from bankruptcy. The school renamed two buildings that once honored former university presidents who were priests and supporters of the slave trade. A year earlier, Georgetown announced that it would give preferential status in the admissions process to descendants of the enslaved people who had been owned by Maryland Jesuits.
Georgetown spokesperson Meghan Dubyak said the school’s board of directors will not have an “up or down” vote on the student referendum but “will engage thoughtfully and with the most careful consideration of the issues” raised by it.
Crowds of slave descendants and Georgetown University students and staffers gather for a dedication ceremony of two buildings at the school that were renamed, one in honor of a slave sold by Maryland Jesuits, and another for a free black woman educator, on April 18, 2017. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
“To my knowledge, this is the most substantial direct financial reparations effort by a university,” said Oast, chair of the history department at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. “What makes this action by VTS more significant is that it has been undertaken by the university itself, and is fully funded.”
Quardricos Driskell, who teaches religion and politics at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, agreed.
“VTS would by definition be the first to have a fund — a University-established led form of reparations,” Driskell, pastor of Beulah Baptist Church, located about three miles from the seminary, told Religion News Service in an email message.
Other institutions have chosen to recognize their connections to slavery without making monetary reparations. Last year, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a flagship institution of the Southern Baptist Convention in Louisville, Kentucky, released a report about its founders condoning slavery and owning slaves, but six months later denied a request from an interracial ministers coalition for financial support for a nearby black college.
Virginia Theological Seminary currently has an enrollment of about 200 master’s and doctoral level students.
The school intends to determine with stakeholders how the income from the endowment fund will be distributed. It said some of it will be allocated to descendants of enslaved persons who worked at the seminary and to assist the work of African American alumni, especially those involved with historic black churches. It also plans to encourage African American clergy in the Episcopal Church and support programs that promote inclusion and justice.
“Though no amount of money could ever truly compensate for slavery, the commitment of these financial resources means that the institution’s attitude of repentance is being supported by actions of repentance that can have a significant impact both on the recipients of the funds, as well as on those at VTS,” said the Rev. Joseph Thompson, director of the seminary’s Office of Multicultural Ministries, in a statement.
“It opens up a moment for us to reflect long and hard on what it will take for our society and institutions to redress slavery and its consequences with integrity and credibility.”
Although the notion of compensating freed slaves has been around since at least the Civil War, providing reparations for their descendants has never really gained much traction in the United States, as I learned while researching my book “Making Whole What Has Been Smashed.”
Is anything different now?
Reparations are rare
Historically, the term “reparations” dealt primarily with the indemnification of states ravaged by war, such as those required of the Germans by the Versailles Treaty after World War I.
In the aftermath of World War II, however, the term began to acquire a broader meaning, extending to compensation for those injured by the actions of a state.
Still, such compensation has happened only rarely.
Germany paid Holocaust survivors US$927 million – or $8.84 billion today – in compensation as part of the 1952 Luxembourg Agreement, most of it going to the newly created state of Israel to defray the costs of resettlement.
Later, the U.S. offered “redress” to some 82,000 Japanese Americans who were incarcerated as “enemy aliens” during World War II. The 1988 Civil Liberties Act granted a presidential apology and $20,000 to each living person who had been detained based on the recommendations of a commission created by Congress in 1980 to examine the causes of the “internment.”
But this payback was intended to be very limited. During the debate, then-Sen. Ernest Hollings worried, “Where do we draw the line against reparations to the countless other groups of Americans who have suffered because of actions of the U.S. government?”
And the law explicitly says compensation would only be provided to victims still alive in order to preclude reparations claims by the descendants of black slaves and others.
‘40 acres and a mule’
Efforts to avoid establishing a precedent for reparations arose in part because former slaves and their descendants have long sought some sort of compensation for their suffering under slavery and segregation. These efforts have achieved little.
Yet after taking office in 1865, President Andrew Johnson rescinded efforts to distribute land to those who were freed. Scholar-activist W. E. B. Du Bois thus observed that “the vision of ‘forty acres and a mule’ … was destined in most cases to bitter disappointment.”
‘Freedom is not enough’
A century after the Civil War, however, President Lyndon Johnson hinted at the need for reparations when he pushed through civil rights legislation intended to make blacks full citizens.
During a speech at Howard University in 1965, he declared: “Freedom is not enough. … It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity.”
Although Johnson didn’t call explicitly for reparations, he urged something more than just equal rights for blacks – something that would rectify the economic disadvantage blacks faced. The speech has often been seen as a harbinger of affirmative action.
Two years later, in the aftermath of urban riots in Newark, Detroit and elsewhere, Johnson created the Kerner Commission to investigate the causes and recommend remedies. The commission found that “white racism” was the basic cause of the racial unrest and proposed massive investment in black communities.
Martin Luther King Jr. agreed with these critical assessments of black deprivation, but generally couched his appeals for addressing poverty in interracial terms. King did once indicate that he was coming to Washington “for a check,” but this was a rare aside.
The heart of King’s “Poor People’s Campaign,” his main focus toward the end of his life, was a universal basic income, not reparations.
But others would pick up the reparations baton. Black radical James Forman, for example, stormed Manhattan’s famously progressive Riverside Church in May 1969 to demand $500 million from “the white Christian churches and Jewish synagogues that are part and parcel of the capitalist system.” This and other demands formed the basis of the Black National Economic Conference’s “Black Manifesto.”
Calls for a commission
Little came of these efforts until decades later when then-Congressman John Conyers introduced the first bill on the issue in 1989.
It proposed a commission to “study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African Americans, [and] to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies.”
But are all these disparities rooted in slavery and segregation? This is where a congressional inquiry, which may finally be politically palatable thanks to the growing embrace of the idea among prominent Democrats, would come in.
Success, which will require legislation, will depend on building bipartisan support for the inquiry. Accordingly, I believe it’s best to avoid talk of “reparations.” After all, most Americans oppose them and always have.
First, get the commission and let it determine the causes of racial inequalities and the form that remedies should take. As poverty is not an affliction of blacks alone, the U.S. must also address the poverty that affects many others as well.
If the commission is given the opportunity to explore the causes of and remedies for racial inequality, however, perhaps Americans can finally move toward rectifying the inequities that beset blacks as a result of their country’s history of slavery, segregation and discrimination.