From their offices in a building erected by slaves, leaders of the Virginia Theological Seminary announced early this month that they have created a $1.7 million fund for reparations, putting one of the oldest Episcopalian schools at the forefront of a movement among universities and other groups seeking to reconcile slavery’s enduring legacy in their organizations.
The endowment fund offers a model at a time when lawmakers and presidential candidates are studying how reparations may work nationally. At Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria — a school that did not admit black students until 1951 — the plan involves more than just writing a check.
The pot of money will be used to address “particular needs” of descendants of slaves who worked at the seminary, to create programs that “promote justice and inclusion,” and to elevate the work and voices of African American alumni and clergy within the Episcopal Church, especially at historically black congregations.
“As we approach the [the Seminary’s] milestone of 200 years, we are deeply conscious of our past. ... Part of our past is explicit racism,” the Rev. Ian S. Markham, dean and president of the seminary, said in a statement. “We were a Seminary where enslaved persons worked. We participated fully in segregation. So we apologize; so we commit to a different future; but we need to do more. This fund is our seed — the first step.”
Virginia Theological Seminary was founded in 1823 by several slaveholding men — including Francis Scott Key, who wrote the national anthem and who so opposed emancipation that he criminally prosecuted abolitionist journalists as U.S. attorney in the District. Key and the other religious founders supported the American Colonization Society, which advocated sending freed slaves back to Africa, according to the book “No Turning Back: The Black Presence at Virginia Theological Seminary.”
On campus, slaves owned by a construction contractor built Aspinwall Hall in 1841, a red-brick building with a stately white tower, which now houses the seminary’s administrative offices, a seminary spokesman told Living Church, a religious news site. When the seminary’s archivist went looking for records of the school’s role in slavery in 2006, she also found that Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate, rented slaves to work at the seminary in 1850s, and that early professors and Virginia bishops also owned slaves.
Records were limited and incomplete, the archivist reported. But there is also anecdotal evidence of slavery’s impact from students in the 19th century who sympathized with the abolitionist movement — and were disturbed by the religious school’s hostility to it. One member of the seminary wrote that the “‘dear old seminary’ was not a very comfortable place for the anti-slavery men, such as a few of us were."
Another student, Phillips Brooks from Boston, wrote in an 1856 letter home: “Of course there is nothing of the brutality of slavery here [at the Seminary], but the institution is degrading the country just as much. All the servants are slaves. Those in the seminary are let out by their masters for so much a year, paid of course to the master just as you’d pay for a horse hired.”
It’s unclear exactly how the seminary will go about identifying the direct descendants of slaves who worked on campus, although Curtis Prather, director of communications, told CNN the school intends to set up a task force.
Elsewhere, universities have also launched task forces to tackle reparations proposals and to track down descendants, and more than 50 have taken part in an initiative called Universities Studying Slavery.
At Georgetown University, students voted in April to create a reparations fund for the descendants of 272 slaves sold at auction in 1838 by Jesuits who founded the school. The measure proposes a fee of $27.20 per student starting in the fall semester of 2020, which would raise an estimated $400,000 to be distributed to charitable causes benefiting the descendants.
At the University of Virginia, a genealogist hired by the school began identifying and contacting descendants of a portion of the estimated 4,000 slaves who worked on campus from 1817 to 1865, typically rented out from other plantations, although the next steps are unclear, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.
And at a hearing in June, lawmakers in Congress began studying the feasibility of reparations, too.
Maryland’s Episcopal Bishop Eugene Sutton was among those who testified before the House Judiciary subcommittee on the constitution, civil rights and civil liberties, supporting federal legislation that would create a commission to make reparations proposals. Sutton testified that the Episcopal Church formally apologized for its complicity in slavery in 2006 and, at that time, already started calling on Congress and all levels of the church to support reparations proposals — part of what led the seminary to its own reparations fund.
Sutton emphasized during his testimony that “it is not just about monetary compensation.”
“It is not the transfer of money from white people to black people,” said Sutton, who said he is a descendant of slaves. “It is what this generation will do to repair the broken pieces of the racial mess we have all inherited from the past.”
Critics of reparations argue that a national proposal would be impractical and unfair, forcing white Americans to pay for the sins of the fathers. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he opposes reparations because “none of us currently living are responsible” for slavery.
Sutton said he was flooded with angry emails by viewers of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” after the Fox News host asked him in an interview why he thought white people should feel “guilty” for the past.
“Sadly, this is to be expected,” Sutton said later. “Talking about race issues in our nation has always been fraught with emotion, touching some of the deep recesses in our personal and collective psyche that many of us prefer to remain hidden. ”
Virginia Theological Seminary expects to spend $70,000 a year from its reparations fund, the Rev. Joseph Thompson, director of the seminary’s Office of Multicultural Ministries, told the Episcopal News Service. He said the initiative, which is fully funded, could be “transformative.”
“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,” he said in a statement.