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Princeton Seminary students are asking for reparations for school’s role in slavery

Buildings at the Princeton Theological Seminary. (Mel Evans/AP)

Princeton Theological Seminary last year released a report describing its founders’ and early faculty’s ties to slavery. Now, some of its students want the school to take it a step further and provide reparations for its role in the slave trade.

A group of black seminarians has collected more than 400 signatures in an online petition calling on the institution to “make amends” by setting aside $5.3 million annually — or 15 percent of what the seminary uses from its endowment for its operating expenses — to fund tuition grants for black students and establish a Black Church Studies program.

As a progressive seminary, Princeton could become a pioneer by distributing reparations, said Justin Henderson, president of the Association of Black Seminarians, the group behind the petition. The school has confessed and repented for the “sin” of its role in slavery, but “repentance doesn’t end with confession,” said Henderson, who will finish his master of divinity studies in May.

“Restitution is evidence of the repentance.," he said. “This is how we know the person has repented.”

The idea of reparations was popularized by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2014 cover story in the Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” It has resurfaced in recent months as an issue in the 2020 presidential race, finding support among several candidates, including Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro. They have not revealed specific plans, but those Democratic candidates signaled a shift from other leaders, such as former president Barack Obama, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is running again for the Democratic Party nominee, and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who declined to support reparations in the past.

Princeton’s report resulted after a two-year research period launched by the seminary’s president, Craig Barnes, in 2016. It found that the seminary did not own slaves, and slave labor was not used to construct buildings. However, it discovered that money given by slaveholders and the interest income it generated accounted for 15 percent of the total revenue of the seminary in the pre-Civil War era. It also stated that donors whose wealth was in some measure derived from the slave trade made up as much as 30 to 40 percent of the seminary’s revenue.

The first president of the seminary’s board of directors condemned slavery, but he owned several slaves. The seminary’s first three professors owned slaves, including Samuel Miller, for whom the chapel is named. The school also had graduates who were part of the abolitionist cause, including Elijah Parish Lovejoy, a pastor and newspaper editor, who was killed by a mob.

Founded in 1812, Princeton is the second-oldest seminary in the United States and is tied to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which claims about 1.4 million members. The seminary has grown to 450 students, 13 percent of whom are black.

Other schools have launched projects to make public their historic ties to slavery, and some have called for financial restitution. Princeton University, which is separate from the seminary, unveiled a project on slavery in 2017.

A group connected to Georgetown University called for a $1 billion foundation for reconciliation as a result of the school’s role in the sale and profit of slaves in 1838, though the leader of that group said the idea wasn’t considered “reparations.”

Nyasha Junior, a religion professor at Temple University who graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary’s PhD program in 2008, said “reparations” can be a loaded term and “sounds big and imposing.” She said the seminary must move beyond simply acknowledging its past, but she isn’t sure what the specifics should look like or if they should be called reparations.

“I think when people hear reparations, that might sound like, ‘specifically, I want a check,’” she said. “Sometimes ‘restitution’ is preferable.” The seminary has money, and we knew where that money had to come from.”

The Association of Black Seminarians, the group of students forming a petition, are calling for full tuition grants for all African American students and student loan forgiveness for African American alumni annually. The association also suggests 10 grants for Liberian students, citing the report’s disclosure of the seminary’s support for the colonization project in Africa, where slaves were returned to Liberia. And then it calls for 10 grants for West African students from countries where many slaves originated.

The students propose a budget of about $5.3 million for the student endowment, estimating about 15 percent of the $35 million the school used from the seminary’s endowment during its 2017-18 school year.

The seminary created a task force to consider proposals, and it will take up discussion of this group’s petition before it makes recommendations to the board of trustees in May, said the Rev. Anne Stewart, who is associate vice president for communication for the seminary. She said changes at the seminary as a result of the report will be “substantial,” since the school’s report on slavery was intended to spark “real and lasting change.”

“The report itself uses language of repentance, confession of sin, acknowledging this history,” Stewart said. “The Christian tradition implies change, a response to confession.”

Stewart said 90 percent of students receive some form of financial aid, and most of those students have 80-100 percent of their tuition covered. The school’s endowment is valued at about $1 billion, she said.

Keri Day, a professor of constructive theology and African American religion, who sits on the task force making recommendations, says she could see pushback against reparations from some white students who don’t believe they should be held accountable for something in the past. Or, she said, there’s a suspicion among some students that providing reparations could be a stunt for the seminary to look good. But she expects the seminary to do something financial as a result of its report.

“Reparations is our theological response,” Day said. “We believe repentance is repairing. Repairing is not just saying ‘I’m sorry’ but restoring.”

Frank Yamada, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools that accredits seminaries, said he has heard of other seminaries producing reports similar to Princeton’s divulging their ties to slavery, but he hasn’t heard of student groups seeking reparations.

In December, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, the oldest Southern Baptist seminary in the country, published a 71-page report detailing the school’s ties to slavery and white supremacy. The seminary included quotes from its founders’ defenses of slavery and showed how many slaves they owned. The seminary’s president, Al Mohler, announced in February that the school would honor its first black full professor, T. Vaughn Walker, who died in January, with an endowed chair in Christian ministry.

Kirt von Daacke, a historian at University of Virginia, said at least 50 schools have looked at their historical ties to slavery, but their approach to financial “repair” or “restitution” varies. Some schools provide preferential treatment in admissions, some provide scholarships and others use money for diversity initiatives within the school.

“Many schools are doing a deeper dig on the research, doing a lot of public acknowledgment and then atonement,” he said. “We have no mechanism for a national way to address this. It’s asking these institutions to bear a lot of weight.”

Princeton Seminary students and alumni will discuss reparations at a town hall meeting on March 23 at Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in Princeton. The seminary will host an academic conference on theological education and the history of slavery on April 8-9.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.