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With Plans To Pay Slavery Reparations, Two Seminaries Prompt A Broader Debate

Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey plans to set aside $27 million to provide 30 scholarships for students who descended from slaves or underrepresented groups.
Mel Evans

Among elite U.S. universities, Harvard, Yale, Brown, and Georgetown have all admitted in recent years that at one time they benefited financially from the slave trade. But two Protestant seminaries have now gone a step further, saying that in recognition of their own connections to racism they have a Christian duty to pay reparations.

Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Va., the flagship institution of the U.S. Episcopal Church, announced in September that it has set aside $1.7 million for a reparations fund, given that enslaved persons once worked on its campus and that the school participated in racial segregation even after slavery ended.

Earlier this month, Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, N.J., followed suit with an announcement of a $27 million endowed fund for reparations, from which $1.1 million would be dispersed annually.

"As a theology school, we use the language of confession to acknowledge our complicity with slavery," says M. Craig Barnes, the Princeton seminary president. In its announcement, the seminary said a historical audit, while showing that the school never itself owned slaves, nonetheless made clear that it "benefited from the slave economy, both through investments in Southern banks ... and from donors who profited from slavery."

The announcement at Virginia Theological Seminary also incorporated religious phrasing.

"Our past is a mixture of sin as well as grace," the Very Rev. Ian Markham, the institution's president, said in a statement. "This is the seminary recognizing that along with repentance for past sins, there is also a need for action." The school will earmark some of the funds for descendants of those enslaved persons who actually built the campus.

The reparations endowment at the Princeton seminary will support scholarships and provide full funding for its Center for Black Church Studies, enabling a new professorship.

Are scholarships reparations?

The broader significance of the new reparation initiatives, however, is a matter of some dispute. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., last spring rejected a petition from some Baptist ministers and former faculty members asking the institution to transfer some of its wealth to a seminary affiliated with Simmons College in Louisville, a historically black institution.

In December, the Southern Baptist seminary acknowledged its history of slaveholding and "deep racism" in a lengthy and candid report, but Albert Mohler, the seminary president, told the petitioners in May that he and the seminary trustees "do not believe that financial reparations are the appropriate response."

In an interview with NPR, Mohler questioned whether setting aside scholarships for African-American students should actually be seen as paying reparations.

[W]e're not doing it in the form of reparations.

"You're taking a percentage of your own funds and then designating that for scholarship assistance, to be paid to your own institution," he says. "It comes right back in the form of tuition payments. It's just prioritizing certain scholarship recipients."

Mohler notes that his seminary has established scholarship assistance for African American students in its doctoral program, with the goal of building "intellectual leadership both for African American churches and for leadership in the larger evangelical community." Such assistance, Mohler notes, is similar to what the Princeton and Virginia seminaries are now establishing.

"In our own way we're doing that," he says, "but we're not doing it in the form of reparations."

At Princeton Theological Seminary, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA), Barnes says his trustees are not focused on the terminology of their new initiative.

"We're not afraid of the word 'reparations,'" he says, "but we prefer 'repair,' like, 'How do we repair the legacy [of slavery] we've inherited?"

A larger issue of justice

A broader question is whether the impact of slavery can be properly addressed by individual institutions taking steps on their own.

"The case-by-case approach can't encompass the full range of effects of slavery in producing racial inequality in the United States," says William Darity, a professor of public policy and African-American studies at Duke University who has written extensively on reparations.

"There's a wider set of impacts that go beyond the immediate perpetrator and the immediate victim," Darity says. "I'm convinced that what we have to do is treat the federal government as the culpable party. It's the federal government's policies and practices that permitted these atrocities to take place," Darity says, "both because of the legal framework the government established but also because of its implicit approval of these kinds of practices by its failure to intervene."

At Princeton Theological Seminary, Barnes says the establishment of a reparations fund by an individual school is no substitute for a national program.

"That's a conversation that is timely and important," he says, "and we're happy to participate in it. In the meantime, we can do what is right for ourselves, our students, and our community, and we can try to make repairs for the culture."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
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