The Virginia Theological Seminary, in what is being called a first for an institution of its kind, has set aside $1.7 million in a fund to pay reparations to the descendants of enslaved Africans that toiled on its campus during the 1800s.
Unlike some other institutions which have grappled with figuring out how to come to terms with a slaveholding past, VTS won’t be offering scholarships or commemorative plaques to African-American descendants of slaves.
Instead, according to CNN, the main seminary of the Episcopal Church says it will look for the descendants of African Americans it held in bondage and use the fund to offer restitution or reparations.
“We do want to honor those who worked in this place and we want to provide financial resources for their descendants,” seminary communications director Curtis Prather told CNN, which reports:
VTS said the fund will also be used to support local congregations with ties to the seminary, to bolster the work of African American graduates and to raise the profile of black clergy in the Episcopal Church.
“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,” said the Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, Virginia Theological Seminary’s dean and president, in a statement, CNN reports. “This is the seminary recognizing that along with repentance for past sins, there is also a need for action.”
The Alexandria, Va., school, with a current enrollment of about 200, says it does not know how many people it enslaved. It is setting up a task force to find descendants.
“We were a seminary where enslaved persons worked. We participated fully in segregation,” Markham noted, the Washington Post reports. “So we apologize; so we commit to a different future; but we need to do more. This fund is our seed—the first step.”
Indeed, the school’s history is steeped in slavery, founded in 1823 by a number of slaveholding men, including Francis Scott Key, an avid slaveholder and author of the racially problematic “Star-Spangled Banner.”
However, scholars told CNN the seminary’s attempt to redress the wrongs of its racist past via reparations could serve as a model for other institutions, even the nation as a whole:
[Duke University professor William A. Darity Jr.] called public reckonings over slavery, including VTS’ announcement, admirable, but said a piecemeal approach is not nearly enough to account for slavery’s devastating history in the United States.
“What complicit institutions should do is use their resources to craft a lobbying organization that would put before Congress the case for reparations for the black descendants of all persons who were enslaved in the United States,” Darity said.
Thomas Craemer, a scholar of reparations and race relations at the University of Connecticut, agreed that a piecemeal approach is insufficient. But VTS could serve as a role model for larger society and perhaps influence the national debate about a larger federal reparations program, he said.
“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,” Craemer said.