Enslaved Africans helped to build the Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) some 200 years ago. Now the school has announced its offer of $1.7 million in reparations to their descendants.
“As far as I know, this is a first for any academic institution in the United States,” William A. Darity Jr., a professor and expert on reparations at Duke University, told CNN.
In a statement on their website, the seminary’s dean and president, Rev. Ian S. Markham, wrote: “As we seek to mark Seminary’s milestone of 200 years, we do so conscious that our past is a mixture of sin as well as grace. This is the Seminary recognizing that along with repentance for past sins, there is also a need for action.”
Not only was slave labor used to build the flagship seminary of the Episcopal Church in 1823, but the school also segregated students based on race until 1951, the seminary’s director of communications, Curtis Prather, told CNN.
In fact, the first African-American student to enroll at the seminary was John T. Walker, who was admitted in 1951.
He eventually went on to become the first African-American bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Washington, D.C., and used his ministry to work tirelessly for social justice.
He was well known as a champion for the rights of the poor and marginalized, speaking out forcefully against South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Walker died following heart surgery in 1989 and was described by the Washington Post as a “powerful and effective force for change in his church and in this city."
Before Walker’s admission to VTS, African-American students studied at Bishop Payne Divinity School, Prather told CNN.
Although the Virginia seminary does not know how many slaves worked to help build the campus in Alexandria, they are setting up a task force to find the descendants of those slaves, CNN reports.
Thomas Craemer, a scholar of reparations and race relations at the University of Connecticut, told CNN, “What I would highlight is the fact that this is the first time that members of an organization associated with slavery (that is, representatives of the perpetrating side) have taken it on themselves to fund reparations to the direct descendants of the enslaved.”
Reparations has been an issue the Democratic candidates have been focusing on; 73 percent of African-Americans favor reparations in the form of cash payments, according to a Gallup poll.
During the debate in July, presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, who has plans for a “$200 billion to $500 billion payment of debt that is owed,” said, “We need to recognize that when it comes to the economic gap between Blacks and whites in America, it does come from a great injustice that has never been dealt with. That great injustice has had to do with the fact that there was 250 years of slavery followed by another hundred years of domestic terrorism.”
Senator Bernie Sanders doesn’t support cash payments but instead supports Rep. Jim Clyburn’s 10-20-30 legislation, which helps distressed Black communities, he told BET.
The money from VTS will be funded by an endowment fund the school created and which will be administered by the Office of Multicultural Ministries, led by Rev. Joseph Thompson, according to the school’s website.
The income from the endowment will be allocated annually in conversation with key stakeholders for purposes like the particular needs of any descendants of enslaved persons that worked at the Seminary; the work of African-American alumni/ae, especially in historic Black congregations; African-American clergy in the Episcopal Church; and other activities and programs that promote justice and inclusion.
Rev. Thompson said in the school’s announcement, “Though no amount of money could ever truly compensate for slavery the commitment of these financial resources means that the institution’s attitude of repentance is being supported by actions of repentance that can have a significant impact both on the recipients of the funds, as well as on those at VTS.”