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Seminaries Start Slavery Reparation Funds Amid Calls For National Program


How to compensate for America's original sin - the issue of reparations has made its way into the Democratic primary and into the broader culture. Several of the presidential candidates say they would support a commission to study the matter. And two Protestant seminaries, this fall, announced plans to create reparations funds in recognition of their own ties to slavery. NPR's Tom Gjelten says these schools that train clergy see it as a confession of past sins.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey was founded in part by people who used slave labor or profited from it. The seminary president, Craig Barnes, says, in consideration of that history, the school will spend more than a million dollars a year through a reparations fund.

M CRAIG BARNES: About half of that's going to scholarships, also curricular changes, fully funding a center for black church studies.

GJELTEN: Also this fall, Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria announced its own somewhat smaller reparations initiative. Some of the money would go to descendants of the slaves who actually built the school. The idea of reparations does remain somewhat controversial, however, at least as exemplified in these cases. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville last spring rejected a petition from some Baptist ministers and former faculty calling for a reparations fund. That school's president, Albert Mohler, says if an institution just sets aside scholarships for African American students, it's not really paying reparations.

ALBERT MOHLER: You're taking a percentage of your own funds, and then you are designating that for scholarship assistance to be paid to your own institution.

GJELTEN: Mohler says the seminary, in that case, is simply prioritizing black students for scholarship assistance. His seminary last year acknowledged its own extensive connections to slavery. Partly to make up for that legacy, it's now giving financial assistance to African American students in its doctoral program not unlike the assistance other institutions are offering their black students. It just doesn't call it reparations. At Princeton, President Barnes says terminology can be a bit of a hang-up.

BARNES: We're not afraid of the word reparations, but we prefer repair. Like, how do we repair the legacy that we've inherited?

GJELTEN: A broader question is whether the legacy of slavery can be addressed by individual institutions taking steps on their own.

WILLIAM DARITY: The case-by-case approach can't encompass the full range of effects of slavery in producing racial inequality in the United States.

GJELTEN: William Darity is a professor of public policy and African American studies at Duke University. He has written extensively on reparations. A focus on individual perpetrators and individual victims, Darity says, obscures how slavery in the United States was officially authorized.

DARITY: And so I'm convinced that what we have to do is treat the federal government as the culpable party.

GJELTEN: Culpable because laws and court decisions provided a legal framework for slavery, segregation and racial injustice generally.

DARITY: But also because of its implicit approval of these kinds of practices by its failure to intervene.

GJELTEN: At Princeton Seminary, President Barnes says an institution's establishment of a reparations fund is no substitute for a national program. The country needs to have a conversation about this, he says. And he says his school is happy to participate in it.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROB LEVIT'S "THE FORGOTTEN SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.