By Kirk Petersen

The Diocese of New York has committed $1.1 million dollars of its endowment to reparations for slavery, to redress what Bishop Andrew M.L. Dietsche described as the diocese’s “significant, and genuinely evil, part in American slavery.”

Bishop Andrew M.L. Dietsche

The reparations fund, representing 2.5% of the diocesan endowment, was approved without opposition on November 9 at the annual diocesan convention. The previous day, the convention also approved an 1860 resolution condemning the ownership and trafficking of enslaved people in the diocese. The resolution had been tabled for 159 years.

The Diocese of New York now joins the Episcopal Virginia Theological Seminary and the Presbyterian Princeton Theological Seminary as religious institutions that have pledged significant funds to atone for their ancestors’ roles in the slave trade.

The 1860 resolution was on the advance agenda for the convention, but the reparations fund was disclosed for the first time in the bishop’s annual address. He plans to appoint a task force to consider how to use the funds and report back to the 2020 convention.

Dietsche said he arrived at the $1.1 million figure by examining the commitments made by VTS and PTS, both of which have significantly larger endowments than the Diocese of New York. He explained that Virginia’s $1.7 million pledge represented 1% of its endowment, whereas the Princeton Seminary’s pledge of $27 million was 2.25% of its $1.2 billion endowment.

With those examples as guides, he arrived at 2.5%, or $1.1 million of the roughly $44 million endowment. “Much smaller, and the resources for significant reparation would be insufficient; much larger, and it might not be something we could do,” he said.

Dietsche described in detail the role the diocese and the city played in the slave trade.

During the eighteenth century the proportion of people in New York owning slaves was the second highest among all of the colonies, after only Charleston, South Carolina. We have records of churches in our diocese which owned men and women as parish servants or as property assets. Churches whose wealth was built on the traffic in human beings.

New York began to phase in abolition early in the century, and by 1827 all enslaved people in the state had been emancipated.

Yet, 32 years later, in 1859, the London Times declared that New York City remained the largest slave market in the world, because of the ships which sailed from this city to patrol the West Coast of the African continent, continuing to kidnap slaves for the American south, generating untold wealth for the shippers and merchants in this city.

The bishop declared, “We have a great deal to answer for. We are complicit.”

The importance of slavery to the economy of New York City explains why the affluent diocese was unwilling to condemn slavery, even as the Civil War loomed. The 1860 resolution was introduced by John Jay, grandson of the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Jay was treated quite shabbily by his fellow convention deputies, a point that was brought home in a dramatic reenactment on the first day of this year’s convention. The script for the reenactment was based closely on the transcript of the actual meeting, said Diane Pollard, who has been an active member of the diocesan reparations committee since it was formed in 2006.

John Jay’s anti-slavery resolution was brought up multiple times, only to be tabled. When Bishop Horatio Potter finally forced the convention to vote, enough deputies walked out to deny a quorum.

Pollard, who is also a lay member of the churchwide Executive Council, told TLC: “We talked about it at our reparations committee meeting, and I believe I was one of the ones who suggested, why don’t we bring it up?” She was given the honor of proposing the vote on the 1860 resolution.

Dietsche told the convention that he has hoped during his episcopacy to increase the diocesan endowment, and “this resolution will set that back. … However, I am sure that any honest process of reparation must require sacrifice, and a commitment not only from our surplus, but from our seed corn.”

Dietsche said he would appoint the task force in the next 30 days.

I do not want to dictate to the task force the deliberations which will come. But may I say that this money could produce five $10,000 college or seminary scholarships every year in perpetuity. This money could establish and fund an education and advocacy library and resource center in this diocese dedicated to racial justice and reconciliation. This money could support a first step program in this diocese to invite, nurture and prepare black young people, and men and women, to explore the possibility of ordained ministry.

“I look forward with anticipation to the creative possibilities that might come from this initiative,” he said.

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