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A group of seminarians stand behind a reparations protest banner.

Photo Courtesy of Archange Antoine

On Wednesday, amid a backdrop of pronounced student activism, the trustees of Princeton Theological Seminary convened to discuss the possibility of establishing a reparations fund, in reflection of the Seminary’s historical participation in the institutions of American slavery. The meeting, the first of its kind, was preceded by years of student activism and represents a climactic moment in a years-long conversation.

Nicholas Young, President of the Seminary’s Association of Black Seminarians (ABS) and a central figure in the campaign in favor of reparations, expects the outcome of Wednesday’s meeting to be announced on Oct. 17.

The designation of a reparations fund would be sourced from the Seminary’s $986 million dollar endowment. 

Student activists staged a coordinated demonstration to make a final appeal to trustees and faculty before they reached a decision.

On Thursday morning, during a service in Miller Chapel, around 80 seminarians remained standing during  worship, calling for the Seminary’s trustees to deliver “substance, not symbols.” The demonstrators, donning black outfits and determined stares, formed a human wall inside the chapel.

According to a seminarian present at the protest, this demonstration prompted promising responses from trustees and faculty. The seminarian requested to remain anonymous.

Traction on the issue, however, has not traditionally been so strong. Shalom Stewart and Al Curley, Chaplain and Vice President of the ABS, respectively, were hesitant to claim victory too soon.

“I feel it could go either way. I have a small sense of hope, but I also sense it could continue with business as usual,” Stewart said.

The proposed reparations come after the publication of “Princeton Seminary and Slavery: A Report of the Historical Audit Committee,” a 2018 report commissioned by Princeton Theological Seminary President Craig Barnes and carried out by the Seminary’s Historical Audit Task Force. The report sought to investigate the Seminary’s specific ties to institutions of slavery.

After the report’s publication, the ABS released a petition, which calls, among other steps, for the Seminary to allocate “no less than 15% of the current endowment” to rectify the historical injustices enumerated within the report. Since its posting online, the petition has garnered more than 650 signatures.

In particular, the ABS has proposed that the Seminary divert some $5.3 million — roughly 15 percent of the total amount it drew from its endowment during the 2017-2018 academic year — to fund scholarships for all future African-American students, as well as students of West-African nations from which slaves were historically taken, and for students from Liberia.

Many of the Seminary’s early leaders were affiliated with the American Colonization Society, a political group that advocated for the migration of free African Americans to Africa. The Society played an instrumental role in the founding of Liberia in 1847.

Furthermore, the ABS has called for the Seminary to create a Black Church Studies Program, as well as establish a number of faculty positions that advance the institution’s commitment to racial justice.

Within the context of a theological seminary, this debate represents unique iteration of the national conversation about reparations. For Young, the fight for reparations is not simply a social justice issue, but also an issue of faith. According to him, the resort to faith sometimes provides additional inspiration, and, at others, heightened disillusionment.

In reference to the possibility of disappointment, Young remarked, “I have to have hope. You just have to have hope.”

As an announcement from the Seminary’s trustees nears, seminarians, activists, and the community await their decision.

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