A Christian seminary in Virginia has announced it is setting aside $1.7 million in an endowment fund to pay reparations to the descendants of slaves who were forced to work on its campus decades ago.
Virginia Theological Seminary said that the fund is an effort to “repair the material consequences of our sin in the past.” The school, which was founded in 1823, benefited from the work of enslaved African Americans on its Alexandria campus. At least one of its buildings, Aspinwall Hall, was built by slaves. The school continued to discriminate against Black Americans even after slavery was abolished ― refusing to admit Black students until the 1950s.
The seminary’s dean, Rev. Ian Markham, said Thursday that the school recognized a need to pair repentance about its past with tangible action.
“This is a start,” Markham said. “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.”
The initiative will be used to support descendants of the slaves who worked at the college. The seminary is setting up a task force to locate these descendants, CNN reports.
The funds will also be used to encourage more Black Americans to become clergy, and to support the seminary’s Black alumni, especially those who work in historically Black congregations.
Virginia Theological Seminary is an institution of the mainline Protestant Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the global Anglican communion. Today, the overwhelming majority of its members are white.
One of the seminary’s founders was Francis Scott Key, a lawyer from a wealthy slaveholding family whose poem about the bombardment of a Maryland fort became the lyrics for the U.S. national anthem. While Key claimed to believe slavery was a sin, he frequently clashed with abolitionists and defended slaveowners’ rights to own enslaved people in court.
The seminary’s decision to participate in reparations puts it ahead of other American universities and colleges who are grappling with how to atone for the fact that they profited from slave labor. Some schools have published reports on their institution’s involvement with the slave trade, while others have offered descendants special scholarships. Despite these efforts, many schools haven’t taken the step of creating a reparations fund for descendants.
Kentucky’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, part of America’s largest Protestant denomination, released a report documenting its historical connections to slavery last year. But the seminary has stated that it doesn’t believe financial reparations are an “appropriate response.”
Black students at Princeton Theological Seminary are currently petitioning their school to fund reparations to address its historical involvement with slavery.
Georgetown University, which is affiliated with the Jesuit Catholic order, has been trying to make amends for its 1838 sale of 272 slaves. The university’s student government passed a bill this year that supported adding a new $27.20 fee to all undergraduate students’ tuitions, which would go toward a reparations fund. The bill is non-binding on the university.
On the other hand, Virginia Theological Seminary’s reparations effort is already fully funded, CNN reports.
Rev. Joseph Thompson, director of the seminary’s Office of Multicultural Ministries, said he believes the fund could be “transformative.” Thompson said that while “no amount of money could ever truly compensate for slavery,” the initiative is a step toward putting repentance into action.
“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,” Thompson said.
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