Virginia Theological Seminary Begins Paying Reparations to Descendants of Black Americans Who Were Forced to Work There

The Virginia Theological Seminary, in Alexandria, Va., in February began handing out cash payments to the descendants of Black Americans who labored there during the time of slavery and Jim Crow. (Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times)

One night in 1858, Carter Dowling, an enslaved Black man forced to work without pay at the Virginia Theological Seminary in Northern Virginia, made the brave decision to escape.

He made it to Philadelphia, where he met the famed abolitionist William Still. He then continued north to Canada and, after the Civil War, returned to Washington, D.C., where he was able to open a bank account for his children. He eventually went on to work as a labor 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, the Virginia Theological Seminary began handing out cash payments to the descendants of Black Americans who were forced to work there during the time of slavery and Jim Crow.

The program is among the first of its kind. Though other institutions have created atonement programs, such as scholarships and housing vouchers for Black people, few, if any, have provided cash. (The Times could not verify whether the seminary is the first to provide cash payments.)

“When white institutions have to face up with the sins of their past, we’ll do everything we can to prevaricate, and we’ll especially prevaricate if it’s going to have some sort of financial implication,” said the Rev. Ian S. Markham, the president and dean of the seminary, which is in Alexandria, Va. “We wanted to make sure that we both not just say and articulate and speak what’s right, but also take some action — and we were committed to that from the outset.”

The checks, about $2,100 this year, will come annually and have begun to flow to the descendants of those Black workers. The money has been pulled from a $1.7 million fund, which is set to grow at the rate of the seminary’s large endowment. Though just 15 people have received payments so far, that number could grow by the dozens as genealogists pore through records to find living descendants.

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Will Wright

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