Virginia Seminary Built on Free Black Labor to Pay Reparations to Descendants of Workers

·3 min read

The subject of reparations is a prickly one because acknowledging America’s horrific past is something white America just doesn’t seem to have the fortitude to do. A seminary in Virginia has taken the steps to acknowledge the role slavery and Jim Crow laws played in its founding and has begun cash payments to the descendants of Black people who worked for little to no money at the school during the era of slavery and Jim Crow laws.

According to the New York Times, the Virginia Theological Seminary began sending out cash payments in February to the descendants of Black people who worked there from 1823 to 1951. “When white institutions have to face up with the sins of their past, we’ll do everything we can to prevaricate, and we’ll especially prevaricate if it’s going to have some sort of financial implication,” the Rev. Ian S. Markham, president and dean of the seminary, told the Times. “We wanted to make sure that we both not just say and articulate and speak what’s right, but also take some action—and we were committed to that from the outset.”

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The Times notes that this is one of the first times an institution has committed to giving tangible, cash payments as reparations as opposed to scholarships, housing vouchers or other programs meant to atone for the conditions Black people faced under slavery and Jim Crow laws.

From the New York Times:

The checks, about $2,100 this year, will come annually and have begun to flow to the descendants of those Black workers. The money has been pulled from a $1.7 million fund, which is set to grow at the rate of the seminary’s large endowment. Though just 15 people have received payments so far, that number could grow by the dozens as genealogists pore through records to find living descendants.

The program authorized payments to the members of the generation closest to the original workers, calling them “shareholders.” If that generation includes people who have died, the payments would go to their children. And if that person had no children, the money would be split among the siblings of the eldest generation.

The Rev. Joseph Thompson, the seminary’s director of multicultural ministries, remembers the day that Mr. Markham walked into his office and asked what he thought about creating a reparations program.

“This is one of those things I never thought I would see in my lifetime — a serious, a kind of broad conversation about reparations in the United States of America,” he said. “That was a very striking moment for me.”

The seminary is working with genealogists to trace the bloodlines of the potentially hundreds of Black people who worked as dishwashers, janitors, and other service roles at the school. The seminary is one of the most prestigious in the Episcopal church, graduating only 50 students a year and boasting a $191 million endowment. Linda J. Thomas, whose grandfather John Thomas Jr., worked at the school as a janitor, was one of the first to receive the cash payments.

She told the Times that while the payments were modest, she hopes they lead to a larger conversation about reparations and the extent to which Black labor was exploited. “For so many years, people with the sweat on their backs not only picked cotton, but built institutions,” Thomas told the Times.

Markham has said that there was pushback among some donors when he announced the school would begin the process of giving reparations, with some saying they would refuse to donate any more money and others asking to be removed from the seminary’s mailing list. Markham added that he believes it’s time for the nation to truly face the ongoing blight of racial inequality instead of turning a blind eye.

“I think the time has come to say, ‘No, you can’t anymore,’” he said. “You actually do need to really face up to what happened, how it happened, and how you make it right.”