On reparations by my alma mater

On reparations by my alma mater November 14, 2019

As a student at Princeton Theological Seminary in the 90s, my dorm room in Alexander Hall was so narrow that I could touch the walls on opposite sides of the room at the same time. The neighboring room was regal and spacious. This every-other-room pattern repeated throughout the building. Rumor had it that the closet-sized rooms were built to accommodate the slaves of Southern gentlemen who resided in the grander rooms. 


The memory of those close walls rushed back to me when I saw the recent news that my alma mater is launching a $27 million slavery reparations program. Components of the program include the creation of 30 new scholarships and five new postdoctoral fellowships for students descended from slaves or from underrepresented groups, the renaming of several buildings, and weaving African-American studies into the mandatory curriculum for all students. 


This step toward repentance is welcome, but the journey to justice is a long one that is just beginning.


“The Seminary’s ties to slavery are a part of our story. It is important to acknowledge that our founders were entangled with slavery and could not envision a fully integrated society,” said Princeton Seminary President M. Craig Barnes in a university-issued statement. “We are committed to telling the truth. We did not want to shy away from the uncomfortable part of our history and the difficult conversations that revealing the truth would produce.”


The story would not have come this far without the leadership of black students. The Association of Black Seminarians circulated a petition last April calling for the seminary to set aside $5.3 million per year for reparations in light of a groundbreaking report conducted by the school examining its historical relationship with slavery. The petition garnered over 500 signatures from students. ABS president Rev. Nicholas Young called the school’s recently announced program a good start, but said it wasn’t enough.


Writing in Baptist News Global, Rev. Wendell Griffin and Lauri Umansky offered a more pointed response, saying 


“Real reparations for slavery will require the beneficiaries of white supremacy to give up both money and power. Are the repentant trustees ready for that? If so, they should go back to the boardroom, this time with the black seminarians, and hammer it out for justice and freedom – as we should do all over this land.

An incomplete repentance

Another shortcoming of the reparations program is that it is rooted in an incomplete examination of history. The trustees’ report on the school’s history examines only the antebellum period. But slavery was not replaced by an age of freedom and equality. Reconstruction was halted by a brutal wave of white supremacist terrorism. Jim Crow laws and near-total voter suppression in the South locked in a racist political system that was democratic in name only. A variety of policies and practices such as redlining, predatory lending and employment discrimination in every corner of the nation have resulted in African Americans holding just 3% of wealth in the United States despite making up 13% of the population. The mass movements of the 1960s gave way to an era of mass incarceration that has persisted ever since, under both Democratic and Republican rule.


This ongoing era of discrimination colored my time at Princeton Seminary. We had to organize and fight for the creation of a class on the liberation theology of James Cone — one of the most influential black theologians in U.S. history. A conservative student group called the Hodge Society, which thrived on racial provocation, circulated a newsletter with inflammatory statements about African-American literature and culture. In the cafeteria, students sorted by race, reflecting the divisions of larger society rather than transcending them. Students of color faced instances of racist mocking and ostracism.


One of the timeless challenges seminarians and clergy face is the struggle to apply the lessons of Scripture to the moral challenges of the present day. The Association of Black Seminarians’ petition challenged the seminary “to follow the instructions of Lev. 26:41 fully, in which the covenant people of God are called to make amends for the iniquity of their ancestors.” 


Those ancestors include not only the slave master, but also the city councils that approved housing discrimination, the predatory lender who pushed subprime loans on people of color who qualified for prime rates, the politician who paved his path to election with “tough on crime” bills that destroyed lives rather than rehabilitating. All seminaries must examine this era to discover the ways in which they were complicit through sins of omission and commission.


Psalm 127 begins by stating that “Unless the Lord builds the house, the laborers toil in vain.” For the seminary and the nation’s labor to not be in vain, we must heed the word of the Lord that all God’s children are created in the divine image: the sharecropper and the victim of wage theft, the wrongly evicted and unjustly convicted. May the disinherited have a seat at the table, and may the process of reparations begin anew.

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