By Kirk Petersen
While the wheels of government slowly turn in the debate over reparations for slavery, Virginia Theological Seminary is taking matters into its own hands, becoming one of the first organizations of any kind to commit funds to reparations.
VTS today announced it is creating a $1.7 million endowment that will fund “activities and programs that promote justice and inclusion,” including “the particular needs of any descendants of enslaved persons that worked at the Seminary.”
“While the seminary itself didn’t own slaves, many of the early professors did,” said Curtis Prather, the seminary’s director of communications. “At least one of our buildings was built by slaves. … We have recognized this over the years.”
“We wanted to make a significant start, and try to plant a seed to move in the direction of reparations,” said the Rev. Joseph Thompson, PhD, the director of the Office of Multicultural Ministries, which will administer the fund. He said the fund is expected to generate about $70,000 annually.
Prather and Thompson both spoke by phone with TLC from their offices in Aspinwall Hall, the main administration building – and the one building the seminary knows for certain was built by slaves, who were owned by the contractors.
The Alexandria-based seminary, the largest of 10 Episcopal seminaries in the United States, has been frank about its own history with slavery.
“Virginia Theological Seminary recognizes that enslaved persons worked on the campus, and that even after slavery ended, VTS participated in segregation. VTS recognizes that we must start to repair the material consequences of our sin in the past,” the announcement said.
In an October 2018 letter to the seminary community, the Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, Ph.D., dean and president of VTS, said that prior to Emancipation, the majority of faculty members owned slaves. “slavery is a deep evil – an evil that requires repentance and a commitment to radically different future. In these respects, we are committed to change,” he wrote.
With this announcement, VTS can claim a leadership status in the reparations movement.
Earlier this year, students at Georgetown University voted in essence to tax themselves, approving a student fee of $27.20 per semester to fund reparations, generating about $400,000 a year from a much larger institution. The amount was chosen because Georgetown sold 272 slaves in 1838.
Prather and Thompson said they did not know how VTS chose the figure of $1.7 million for the VTS endowment. Last year, VTS had 188 students, according to the Association of Theological Schools, while Georgetown had about 18,000.
At the time of the Georgetown announcement, a Politico headline read, “This Could Be the First Slavery Reparations Policy in America.” Neither Thompson nor Prather were aware of any other institutions that had established a fund for reparations, although Thompson said he believed the Diocese of Maryland had done something along those lines.
At its 2016 annual convention, the Diocese of Maryland resolved to give “an amount equivalent to at least ten percent of the assets of its unrestricted investment funds to the diocesan chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE) as an initial act of reparation.”
While students played a leading role in creating the reparation fund at Georgetown University, at VTS the discussion was driven by the seminary leadership. “It goes back at least to 2009, when our dean and president… Ian Markham, issued an apology on behalf of the seminary for having participated in slavery, and for racism going forward after the institution of slavery,” Thompson said.
VTS did not admit its first black students until 1951. In 1953, the school merged with the Bishop Payne Divinity School, an African-American facility 120 miles to the south in Petersburg, Virginia. Thompson said Bishop Payne was started in the late 1800s precisely because VTS and other seminaries would not admit African-Americans.
Next step at VTS is to delve deeper into the history of the school and its history of supporting racism, Thompson said. The seminary has not been able to identify any of the slaves who worked on campus, but that is among the things they will research.