The Seminary Flourished on Slave Labor. Now It’s Planning to Pay Reparations.

By the time Phillips Brooks arrived at the Virginia Theological Seminary in 1856, the institution was thriving. Founded more than three decades earlier in the Sunday school room of a church in Alexandria, Va., the seminary now sat on a 62-acre estate with lush meadows and glorious views of the Washington Monument.

School officials saw the transformation as a sign of divine blessings. But Mr. Brooks, a seminarian who would go on to become the bishop of his home state of Massachusetts, saw more than the hand of God at work.

“There are crowds of slaves about here,” wrote Mr. Brooks in one of a series of letters describing life at the school, the first Episcopal seminary in the South. “It is one of the best places to see the sad effects of slavery on the white population, degrading and unmanning them.”

This month, more than a century after the last enslaved people labored on campus, the seminary’s leaders announced plans to atone for that history. They are creating a $1.7 million reparations fund, becoming one of the first American institutions to allocate money specifically for the descendants of the enslaved. The fund will also provide financial support for black seminarians and black worshipers who experienced discrimination on campus.

ImageThe Virginia Theological Seminary in a Civil War-era photograph.
CreditMathew Brady/Library of Congress
CreditVirginia Theological Seminary Archives
CreditVirginia Theological Seminary Archives

“We need to come to terms with a past that has an ugly side, a wicked side,’’ the Rev. Ian S. Markham, the seminary’s dean and president, said in an interview.

“When you’re talking about something as heinous as slavery, there’s no amount really that can actually satisfy that sin,” Dean Markham said. “It’s just too enormous. But we’re going to do the hard work, recognizing that our past is full of sin and grace.”

The move places the southern seminary at the forefront of a growing number of universities and religious institutions striving to make amends for their involvement in America’s system of involuntary servitude. And it comes as some groups move beyond apologies, considering actual financial compensation to descendants.

Last year, the Catholic sisters of the Society of the Sacred Heart created a reparations fund to finance scholarships for African-Americans in Grand Coteau, La., where the nuns had owned about 150 black people.

This spring, students at Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution, voted to create a fund, financed by student fees, to benefit the descendants of the 272 people who were sold in 1838 to help keep the college afloat. (The plan has yet to receive approval from Georgetown’s board of trustees.)

The Jesuits, who founded and ran Georgetown and organized the 1838 slave sale, are currently in talks with descendants of the people they once owned. Those descendants are seeking $1 billion for a foundation that would finance educational, health, housing and other needs.

In a statement, Timothy P. Kesicki, the president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, said the Jesuits and Georgetown officials “have been constructively engaged in discussing the descendants’ vision for a pathway forward.”

The decision by Virginia Theological Seminary moves the debate over reparations — which in recent months has bubbled up in presidential campaigns and in the halls of Congress — from the theoretical to a reality.

“It’s important because the conversation about institutional obligations to the descendants of the enslaved typically gets confined to a discussion of research and fact-finding,” said Craig Steven Wilder, a historian at M.I.T. who has written extensively about universities and their ties to slavery.

“It’s the religious institutions that have started to lay out a path from there toward restorative justice,” Dr. Wilder added. “It’s much harder for religious institutions to be silent on the moral implications of their own history.”

CreditJustin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

The fund at the Virginia Theological Seminary will be administered by the Rev. Joseph Thompson, the director of the Office of Multicultural Ministries. The institution plans to spend about $70,000 each year.

The seminary hopes to identify descendants of the enslaved laborers who worked on campus and seminarians who experienced discrimination at the school. Officials plan to discuss their needs and to offer financial assistance, officials said. “Everything is on the table,” Dean Markham said.

Officials also hope to support local churches with historical ties to the seminary and African-American alumni, especially black Episcopal clergy and those working in black congregations.

Dean Markham said the decision to create the fund had touched off “a lively debate” within the seminary’s community where it has been discussed by members of the board, faculty and alumni.

“People had a lot of questions to ask,” Dr. Thompson added. “There are obvious logistical challenges and obvious philosophical questions. I’m very excited to tackle those questions with the dean’s task force.”

Seminary officials plan to begin charting the way forward by digging into the past. They plan to pore over archival records to try to unearth the names and stories of the enslaved men and women who toiled on campus. Several of the institution’s founders were slaveholders, including Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics to the “Star Spangled Banner.” Census records indicate that at least five faculty members owned black people as well, according to the Rev. Joseph M. Constant, the author of “No Turning Back: The Black Presence at Virginia Theological Seminary.”

But most of the enslaved people on campus were rented from local plantations, including from Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate. Enslaved laborers are believed to have built several buildings on campus, including Aspinwall Hall, which currently houses the seminary’s administrative offices, said Christopher Pote, the seminary’s archivist.

The sight of so many enslaved men and women on campus in the 1850s astonished Mr. Brooks, the young seminarian from Massachusetts.

“All the servants are slaves,” Mr. Brooks wrote to his father in 1856. And students who tried to minister to the enslaved encountered threats and resistance.

One Northern student, he wrote, held a meeting once a week for the enslaved people at the seminary, but had been told to give it up, “or he will have to suffer.”

“Another who has preached some in the neighborhood has been informed that there was tar and feather ready for him if he went far from the seminary,” Mr. Brooks continued. “And in general they have been given to understand that their tongues were tied and they were anything but free. A pretty style of life, isn’t it?”

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