Posted on July 9, 2021

Their Ancestors Were Enslaved Workers. Now They’re Among the First to Get Cash Reparations

Faith Karimi, CNN, June 27, 2021

Linda Johnson-Thomas’ grandfather worked at the Virginia Theological Seminary for more than a decade, first as a farm laborer before moving up to head janitor.

Her grandparents lived in a little white house on campus with their four children, including her mother. But until two years ago, she had no idea that her grandfather, John Samuel Thomas Jr., had been forced to work at the school in Alexandria, just outside of Washington, D.C.


For more than a century — during slavery, Reconstruction and beyond — the seminary used Black Americans for forced labor. Between 1823 and 1951, hundreds of Black people were forced to work for little or no pay on the campus as farmers, dishwashers and cooks, among other jobs.

Back then faculty members and students also brought their own enslaved people, said Ebonee Davis, an associate for programming and historical research at the seminary.

In 2019 the school announced it had set aside $1.7 million to pay reparations to the descendants of slaves who worked on its campus. Earlier this year it made good on its promise and began handing out annual payments of $2,100 each to direct descendants of those who worked there.

Johnson-Thomas and her two sisters were the first recipients. Fifteen people have received payments so far, and the seminary is expecting to compensate many more as they are identified.


Some scholars of reparations say the seminary’s is the first such program in the country. But despite the promise of annual cash payouts, its recipients were wary at first.

Since it announced the reparations endowment fund in September 2019, the seminary has begun the Herculean task of tracking down direct descendants of its enslaved workers.

It set up a task force. Genealogists pore over old documents to find relatives in far-flung parts of the nation. And when they do, another group takes over the process of reaching out to the direct descendants. The conversations can be difficult.

The money is given to the family generation that is closest to the enslaved person or Jim Crow-era laborer — often the grandchildren or great-grandchildren.

The seminary started cutting checks for the descendants — whom it describes as shareholders — in February. The $1.7 million endowment is expected to grow and continue to fund future payments.

“Though no amount of money could ever truly compensate for slavery, the commitment of these financial resources means that the institution’s attitude of repentance is being supported by actions of repentance,” said Rev. Ian S. Markham, dean and president of the seminary, in a statement.


Johnson-Thomas first heard about the reparations program two years ago. {snip}

While she said no amount of money can compensate for the sin of slavery, Johnson-Thomas hopes the reparations program will change the conversation on race and highlight how Black people have been historically exploited by institutions. {snip}


Gerald Wanzer has lived within five miles of the seminary for years.

In 2019, he got a call from the school seeking more information about his great-grandfather, who worked as a blacksmith there in the 1850s.


Wanzer said he was skeptical about the call at first. But five members of his family — a brother, a sister and a couple of nephews — each received a check from the seminary this year.

Wanzer said he hopes the program will help change the history of racism.

“They can never make up for past transgressions,” he said. “I just hope that people don’t take this as just a money giveaway and instead look at the whole issue of why this happened, why some of it is still happening. It’s been 150 years.”