It is, to date, the largest monetary commitment of its kind: a $27 million commitment from Princeton Theological Seminary for scholarships and other initiatives to redress the institution’s long, tangled history with slavery. But campus-based advocates say the pledge, announced last Friday, is just a starting point.
The New Jersey seminary, not affiliated with Princeton University, publicly committed to reparations after a two-year investigation delving into the school’s relationship to slavery, the New York Times reports. But the figure is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the seminary’s own estimates of what it owes in reparations, Nicholas Young, president of the Association of Black Seminarians, told the Times.
Young called the pledge a “good start,” but added that more of the seminary’s $1 billion endowment could go toward funding black scholars, staff and faculty. Young also noted the seminary should do more to confront its role in “[using] theology to justify the institution of slavery.”
As with other prestigious academic institutions, slavery played a major role in ensuring the seminary could keep its doors open. From the Times:
Founded in 1812, the seminary, which is independent of Princeton University, benefited from the slave economy through investments in Southern banks and by having donors who profited from slavery, the 2018 report said. Founding members of the faculty and other seminary leaders used slave labor and promoted the idea of sending freed slaves to Africa, the report said.
Money given by slaveholders and the interest it generated accounted for 15 percent of the seminary’s revenue before the Civil War, the report said. If donors whose wealth was at least partly derived from slavery were factored in, as much as 30 to 40 percent of the seminary’s pre-Civil War revenue could be linked to slavery, the report said.
Other religious and academic institutions have been grappling with how to address—and redress—the impact slavery had on their growth. Georgetown University students voted to create a $400,000 fund benefitting descendants of the 272 slaves Georgetown Jesuits sold in 1838 to help keep the college afloat. The Board of Trustees has yet to approve the plan.
Princeton Theological Seminary’s plan is notable because it’s the biggest monetary commitment, and includes some non-financial components. According to the Times, the money would go toward 30-full tuition scholarships and 5 doctoral fellowships for “students descended from slaves and for members of underrepresented groups.” The seminary also plans to hire a full-time director for the Center for Black Church Studies, which will be named for Betsey Stockton. As the Times notes, Stockton is a particularly appropriate choice: a former slave, she was gifted to the wife of a former president of the seminary’s board of directors. After being emancipated, Stockton went on to become a widely recognized and respected teacher in Princeton and Philadelphia.
But during her enslavement, the man who owned her, Ashbel Green, led a Presbyterian Church General Assembly committee that issued a statement calling slavery “a gross violation of the most precious and sacred rights of human nature.” The story is included in the seminary’s 2018 report; as the Times reports, the hypocrisy it details reveals a key component of addressing the institution’s relationship to slavery head-on.
Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce, dean of the Howard University School of Divinity and former faculty member at Princeton seminary said religious institutions should consider, “What is the debt owed by the places that created and developed the theology that justified enslavement?”
“How do we change the classes, how do we change the curriculum, how do change the attitudes?” She continued.“You’re not going to do it overnight. And you’re not going to do it with a check.”
Princeton Theological Seminary said it will incorporate findings from its investigation into its master’s degree curriculum starting in fall 2021.