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One night in 1858, Carter Dowling, a black slave forced to work without pay at Virginia Theological Seminary in Northern Virginia, made the courageous decision to escape.
He traveled to Philadelphia, where he met the famous abolitionist William Still. He then continued north to Canada and after the Civil War returned to Washington, DC, where he was able to open a bank account for his children. He eventually worked as a union organizer in Buffalo.
To this day, Mr. Dowling’s family line continues. And, most likely for one of the first times in American history, his descendants could receive cash payments for his forced labor.
In February, Virginia Theological Seminary began distributing cash payments to descendants of black Americans who were forced to work there during the days of slavery and Jim Crow.
The program is among the first of its kind. Although other institutions created atonement programs, such as scholarships and housing vouchers for blacks, few, if any, provided the money. (The Times could not verify whether the seminar is the first to provide cash payments.)
“When white institutions are faced with the sins of their past, we will do everything we can to procrastinate, and we will procrastinate especially if it is to have any kind of financial implication,” said Rev. Ian S. Markham, the chairman and dean of the seminary, which is located in Alexandria, Virginia. “We wanted to make sure that we didn’t just say and articulate and say what’s right, but also take action – and we were committed to that from the start.”
The checks, for around $ 2,100 this year, will arrive each year and have started to flow to the descendants of these black workers. The money was withdrawn from a fund of $ 1.7 million, which is expected to grow in step with the seminary’s large endowment. Although only 15 people have received payments so far, that number could rise by the dozen as genealogists scour records for living descendants.
The program allowed payments to members of the generation closest to the original workers, calling them “shareholders.” If this generation includes people who have died, the payments would go to their children. And if that person did not have children, the money would be shared among siblings of the older generation.
Reverend Joseph Thompson, director of multicultural ministries at the seminary, remembers the day Mr. Markham walked into his office and asked him what he thought about the creation of a reparations program.
“It’s one of those things that I never thought I would see in my lifetime – a serious conversation, sort of a broad conversation about reparations in the United States of America,” he said. “It was a very defining moment for me.”
Seminar leaders recognize that the details of who will receive money, and how much, could be complicated. Take the case of Mr. Dowling. While he was black, his grandchildren identified themselves on official records as white, as did their descendants.
Maddy McCoy, a genealogist working with the seminar to find the descendants of enslaved individuals, said that while such situations presented difficult questions, the seminar tackled them head-on.
“There is no manual that we refer to as we go through this process,” Ms. McCoy said. “With that it’s going to be a lot of ups and downs and a lot of really, really tough decisions and tough conversations, but that’s what this job is.”
The expansion of the program in the coming years will coincide with the seminary’s 200th anniversary in 2023. The seminary, a 25-minute drive south of Washington, has become the most powerful in the Episcopal Church. It trains about 50 students per year and has an endowment of $ 191 million.
But the institution, for all its importance, has depended for decades on the labor of blacks who have never been paid adequately for their work – or have never been paid at all. They included gardeners, cooks, janitors, dishwashers and launderers. The exact number of black workers from 1823 to 1951 is still unknown, but they probably number in the hundreds.
Among them was the grandfather of Linda J. Thomas, the first woman to receive a payment of $ 2,100 from the seminary. Mrs. Thomas’ grandfather, John Samuel Thomas Jr., worked at the seminary after World War I as a janitor, and most likely as a laborer on the seminary farm as well.
Ms Thomas, 65, said her mother recalled growing up in a small white house on campus. She said her grandfather dreamed of becoming a pastor but was unable to apply to seminary because of his skin color. Eventually, towards the end of World War II, he moved to Washington and became a minister before his death in 1967.
Although the payments are modest, she said she hoped the program would mark a shift in the US discourse on reparations – both on the exploitation of blacks and the institutions that have benefited from it. “For so many years, people with sweat on their backs not only picked cotton, but built institutions,” she said.
While the seminar program is revolutionary in the United States, William A. Darity, professor of public policy and African American studies at Duke University, said such atonement programs should not be interpreted as sufficient to right the wrongs of slavery or to eliminate the effects of racist policies.
The only institution that can fund a comprehensive reparations program large enough to atone for lost wages from slavery or close the racial wealth gap is the federal government, he said. “It is not a question of personal guilt,” he added, estimating that such a comprehensive program would require 11 trillion dollars. “It is a matter of national responsibility.”
Public support for repairs has grown over the years, from 19% of those polled in 1999 to 31% in 2021, according to surveys from ABC and the Washington Post. But even within the seminary, the atonement program has given rise to some setback.
Mr Markham said a handful of donors had objected and said they would no longer donate money. They also heard from people who asked to be removed from the seminar mailing lists.
In determining how to provide repairs, a common dividing line has been whether to provide money. The Evanston, Illinois city council has agreed to distribute $ 10 million to black families in housing subsidies, though the details of that plan remain unclear. Earlier this year, Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia signed a law requiring five public universities to create scholarships and community development programs for blacks. And in March, a prominent order of Catholic priests pledged to raise $ 100 million for the benefit of the descendants of the slaves it once owned.
Payments are a fundamental part of the Virginia seminary program, said Ebonee Davis, associate for multicultural ministries, but added that relationships with families, as well as acknowledging the contributions of their ancestors, were also crucial. “I cried on the phone with the shareholders,” she said. “We laughed and kind of shared our disbelief that this was actually happening.”
It is no small task to confirm the identity of the slaves who worked at the seminary, as well as their descendants. It is likely that from 1823 to 1865 at least 290 people worked there, according to research staff. From 1865 to 1951 there were probably hundreds more.
Gerald Wanzer, one of the shareholders, said the records examined by the seminar revealed new details about several members of his family who worked there as general laborers, laundresses and janitors. His great-grandfather, a blacksmith, would have been the first.
But Mr Wanzer, 77, said the seminar “will never be able to make up for what happened 150 years ago, and the money will not personally change my perspective.” Mr Wanzer said that during his own life he had suffered much of the racism suffered by his ancestors.
“I never had to get on the back of the bus, but I remember the separate bathrooms and separate water foundations, and not being able to be served during deliveries,” he said. he said, adding that these experiences had fueled his belief that he would never live to see atonement in the form of cash payments.
Mr Markham said he believed America faced racial inequality and that the seminar’s program, while modest, would help steer the nation away from its tendency to turn a blind eye.
“I think the time has come to say, ‘No you can’t anymore,'” he said. “In fact, you really have to face up to what happened, how it happened and how to fix it.”