Black students at Princeton Theological Seminary say it’s time for the institution to repent for its reliance on the 19th century slave trade. The Association of Black Seminarians is demanding reparations.
At a March 23 town hall meeting in Princeton, N.J., the ABS demanded that at least 15 percent of the school’s $1 billion endowment provide scholarships and grants for Black students. They also seek the expansion of the Black Church Studies program and an endowed department chair.
Currently students who identify as African American comprise around 13 percent of the seminary’s 500 students. The 55-member ABS has gathered more than 500 signatures on its petition demanding their proposals be considered by Princeton’s Historical Audit Task Force, which will make formal recommendations to the board of trustees in May.
ABS member Jade Lee observed, “Like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, it’s about ‘the fierce urgency of now,’ because waiting means never.” (Philly.com, March 26)
In 2016 a committee began to research the seminary’s historic links to slavery. A report, issued in November 2018, found that roughly 15 percent of contributions to the seminary from 1812 to 1861 came from slaveholders. An additional 15 to 25 percent came from benefactors connected to slavery. Some of the seminary’s founders and first professors benefited directly from enslaved labor while speaking out against slavery at the same time.
Campus buildings are named after three professors — Archibald Alexander, Samuel Miller and Charles Hodge — who used slave labor. Slaveholder Richard Stockton donated the land for the school’s first buildings.
More needed than renaming buildings
Princeton Theological Seminary is among dozens of colleges and universities investigating historic ties to slavery. Some of the most prestigious schools in the Northeast were funded in large part through 19th century profits from slavery or the direct use of enslaved workers.
“Shackled Legacy,” a study on how slavery helped build many U.S. colleges and universities, provides detailed information on many of these schools. (tinyurl.com/shackled-legacy) The following are a few examples.
In Massachusetts, the first colony to legalize slavery in 1641, Harvard University exploited the labor of enslaved Africans to serve the sons of wealthy Southern plantation owners on campus. Early benefactors to Harvard, and also to Brown University in Rhode Island, ran slave ships to Africa and milled cotton on Southern plantations.
Yale University in Connecticut used a small slave plantation in Rhode Island to fund its first graduate programs and scholarships. Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia experimented on corpses of enslaved Africans in scientific studies. Columbia University in New York promoted slave auctions in lower Manhattan to fund its first trustees.
Colleges and universities which have acknowledged historic links to profits from the slave trade include Brown University (2003), the University of Alabama (2004), University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2005), University of Virginia (2007), College of William and Mary (2009), Harvard (2011), Emory University (2011), Princeton (2013) and the University of Pennsylvania (2016).
Craig Steven Wilder, author of “Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of American Universities,” writes: “The story of the American college is largely the story of the rise of the slave economy in the Atlantic world.” Wilder notes, however, that “to date, there is no single accounting of how much money flowed from the slave economy into the coffers of American higher education.”
There has been little restitution beyond apologies, renaming buildings and installing plaques. A study released at Washington and Lee University in 2014 led to militant protests by Black students to remove Confederate battle flags on campus.
Now, ABS members at Princeton Seminary made clear that they are not willing to settle for “superficial” initiatives such as changing building names. They insist that any action be substantive, while realizing they probably won’t directly benefit.
Seminary student Michael Evans Jr. expressed discomfort with the school’s connection to slavery. “My great-grandmother picked cotton, cleaned other people’s houses, and raised other people’s children. Just like my ancestors did things that would benefit us,” Evans said in the Philly.com article. “This may not help me, but it may help people who come behind me. This is for somebody else.”