US private school pledges $27m in slavery reparations

New Jersey seminary will provide scholarships and set up doctoral fellowships to repent for having benefited from slavery

Ed Shanahan
Tuesday 22 October 2019 13:51
Founded in 1812, the seminary benefited from ties to slavery
Founded in 1812, the seminary benefited from ties to slavery

A New Jersey seminary has pledged to spend $27m (£20.8m) on scholarships and other initiatives to address its historical ties to slavery, in what appears to be the biggest effort of its kind.

The announcement, by the Princeton Theological Seminary on Friday, came about a year after an internal report detailed the findings of a two-year investigation that showed slavery’s deep roots in the school’s past.

The move put the seminary at the heart of a national discussion about what those who reaped the benefits of slavery — and the United States as a whole — owe to the descendants of slaves.

In a sign of that discussion’s complicated nature, Nicholas Young, the leader of a black student group at the seminary, said that the steps outlined by officials amounted to “a good start” but that they fell short of what the group had sought. About 10% of the seminary’s 360 students are black.

Mr Young, the president of the Association of Black Seminarians, criticised the $27 million figure as being well below what the seminary’s own accounting indicated should be set aside from its $1bn (£772m) endowment to cover reparations-related costs.

Beyond that, Mr Young said, the seminary needed to do more to address how faculty and other leaders had “used theology to justify the institution of slavery.”

Founded in 1812, the seminary, which is independent of Princeton University, benefited from the slave economy through investments in Southern banks and by having donors who profited from slavery, the 2018 report said. Founding members of the faculty and other seminary leaders used slave labour and promoted the idea of sending freed slaves to Africa, the report said.

Money given by slaveholders and the interest it generated accounted for 15% of the seminary’s revenue before the Civil War, the report said. If donors whose wealth was at least partly derived from slavery were factored in, as much as 30-40% of the seminary’s pre-Civil War revenue could be linked to slavery, the report said.

“The seminary’s ties to slavery are a part of our story,” M Craig Barnes, the seminary’s president, said in a statement. “It is important to acknowledge that our founders were entangled with slavery and could not envision a fully integrated society. We are committed to telling the truth.”

Last month, the Virginia Theological Seminary, which was built with slave labour and whose founders included slave owners, became among the first American institutions to earmark money specifically for the descendants of the slaves, pledging $1.7m (£1.3m) for a reparations fund.

Last year, the Catholic sisters of the Society of the Sacred Heart created a reparations fund to finance scholarships for African Americans in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, where the nuns once owned about 150 black people.

In April, students at Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution, voted to create a fund, financed by student fees, to benefit the descendants of 272 people sold in 1838 to help keep the college afloat. (Georgetown’s board of trustees has not approved the plan.)

The issue of slave reparations has also gained political traction among Democrats this year, with Congress holding a hearing on the subject and considering a commission. Several presidential candidates have also expressed support for the idea.

The reckoning over slavery’s role at theological institutions and universities with religious ties, like Georgetown, is particularly significant, said the Reverend Dr Yolanda Pierce, the dean of the Howard University School of Divinity.

Dr Pierce, who taught at the Princeton seminary for 10 years before leaving in 2017, commended the seminary, but said it and similar institutions had an obligation to address the kind of existential questions that money could not.

“What is the debt owed by the places that created and developed the theology that justified enslavement?” she said. Seminaries and institutions with religious ties, she said, needed to consider “how do we change the classes, how do we change the curriculum, how do change the attitudes?”

She added: “You’re not going to do it overnight. And you’re not going to do it with a cheque.”

Anne Stewart, the seminary’s vice president for external affairs, said that officials did not expect the initiatives to be embraced unconditionally.

“We know that some students will challenge us to do more,” she said. As to tackling the deeper questions of the seminary’s past role in supporting slavery more broadly, she noted that, among other things, the findings of the two-year investigation would be incorporated into the curriculum for all students pursuing a master’s degree starting in fall 2021.

The other measures announced by the seminary included 30 full-tuition scholarships for students descended from slaves and for members of underrepresented groups; five doctoral fellowships for students from those same backgrounds; the hiring of a full-time director for the Centre for Black Church Studies; and the naming of the centre for Betsey Stockton.

Ms Stockton, a prominent African American teacher in Princeton and Philadelphia, in some ways embodies the seminary’s complicated, and at times contradictory, connections to slavery, as detailed in the 2018 report.

She was given as a slave to the first wife of Ashbel Green, the first president of the seminary’s board of directors. Green, who owned several slaves, also led a Presbyterian Church General Assembly committee that produced an 1818 statement condemning slavery as “a gross violation of the most precious and sacred rights of human nature,” the report said.

After Stockton was emancipated, the report said, Green encouraged her religious education and missionary work in what is now known as Hawaii.

A big chunk of the report examines the deep involvement of faculty, board members and alumni in the American Colonisation Society — a group that existed until 1964 and pushed for sending freed slaves to Africa, ostensibly to head off the social upheaval they believed that emancipation would cause, the report said.

Among those active in the society, according to the report, were Charles Hodge, Archibald Alexander and Samuel Miller. All three, Young of the Association of Black Seminarians noted, have campus buildings bearing their names.

The New York Times

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