Princeton Seminary Students Are Asking for Reparations for School’s Role in Slavery

Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Washington Post, March 22, 2019

Princeton Theological Seminary last year released a report describing its founders’ and early faculty’s ties to slavery. Now, some of its students want the school to take it a step further and provide reparations for its role in the slave trade.

A group of black seminarians has collected more than 400 signatures in an online petition calling on the institution to “make amends” by setting aside $5.3 million annually — or 15 percent of what the seminary uses from its endowment for its operating expenses — to fund tuition grants for black students and establish a Black Church Studies program.

As a progressive seminary, Princeton could become a pioneer by distributing reparations, said Justin Henderson, president of the Association of Black Seminarians, the group behind the petition. The school has confessed and repented for the “sin” of its role in slavery, but “repentance doesn’t end with confession,” said Henderson, who will finish his master of divinity studies in May.

“Restitution is evidence of the repentance,” he said. “This is how we know the person has repented.”

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Princeton’s report resulted after a two-year research period launched by the seminary’s president, Craig Barnes, in 2016. It found that the seminary did not own slaves, and slave labor was not used to construct buildings. However, it discovered that money given by slaveholders and the interest income it generated accounted for 15 percent of the total revenue of the seminary in the pre-Civil War era. It also stated that donors whose wealth was in some measure derived from the slave trade made up as much as 30 to 40 percent of the seminary’s revenue.

The first president of the seminary’s board of directors condemned slavery, but he owned several slaves. The seminary’s first three professors owned slaves, including Samuel Miller, for whom the chapel is named. {snip}

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The Association of Black Seminarians, the group of students forming a petition, are calling for full tuition grants for all African American students and student loan forgiveness for African American alumni annually. The association also suggests 10 grants for Liberian students, citing the report’s disclosure of the seminary’s support for the colonization project in Africa, where slaves were returned to Liberia. And then it calls for 10 grants for West African students from countries where many slaves originated.

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Keri Day, a professor of constructive theology and African American religion, who sits on the task force making recommendations, says she could see pushback against reparations from some white students who don’t believe they should be held accountable for something in the past. {snip}

“Reparations is our theological response,” Day said. “We believe repentance is repairing. Repairing is not just saying ‘I’m sorry’ but restoring.”

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