For Jade Lee, the residue of slavery is inescapable as she studies for the ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary. A century and a half later, it still infects the ground on which she walks and the chapel where she prays, both tied to slave owners.
The seminary recently laid its dark history bare in a report establishing the school’s connection to the 19th-century economy of human bondage. Now, students are saying it’s time to repent.
“Like [the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] said, it’s about ‘the fierce urgency of now,’ because waiting means never,” said Lee, 24, who is pursuing a master of divinity degree — and justice.
Lee is part of a task force formed by Princeton’s Association of Black Seminarians (ABS) that is demanding reparations from the 500-student seminary for its reliance on a slave trade that filled benefactors’ pockets and the school’s coffers.
Students, school officials, and residents discussed the proposals Saturday at a town meeting at Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in Princeton, where the father of the singer-actor-athlete-activist Paul Robeson once served as pastor.
The 55-member ABS wants at least 15 percent of the seminary’s endowment — currently valued at $1 billion — to be earmarked for scholarships and grants for black students in addition to the expansion of the Black Church Studies program and an endowed department chair. About 13 percent of the seminary’s students describe themselves as African American.
The ABS also is circulating a petition that now has more than 500 signatures.
Its demands are among proposals being considered by the Historical Audit Task Force, a seminary committee that will make a formal set of recommendations to the board of trustees, perhaps in May.
“We are looking for substance, not symbols,” said the Rev. Charles Gilmer, a graduate who is serving as an adviser to the ABS. “We are looking for the seminary to act in keeping with the confession that is in the report itself — they called its involvement with slavery sin.”
In November, the school released a report, "Princeton Seminary and Slavery,” examining its ties to the slave trade after its founding 207 years ago. A committee of faculty and administrators had begun the research in 2016.
They found that while the school did not own slaves or likely use slave labor to erect its buildings, about 15 percent of the seminary’s revenue from 1812 to 1861 was a product of donations from slave owners. But the figure increases to as much as 30 percent to 40 percent with the inclusion of contributions from benefactors whose wealth was in some way connected to slavery. Some of the school’s founders and first professors owned enslaved people while also decrying the institution of slavery.
“We discovered contradictions and complexities in attitude and convictions among the seminary’s early faculty and community,” said Anne Stewart, the school’s associate vice president of communication and a member of the research committee. “Many of them spoke and wrote against slavery, but they still couldn’t imagine an integrated society.”
The seminary’s first three professors — Archibald Alexander, Samuel Miller, and Charles Hodge — used slave labor, and each has at least one campus building named after him. The school also was involved in the American Colonization Society, which advocated for enslaved people to return to Africa.
“From its beginning, Princeton Seminary gained advantage from those who owned slaves,” the report reads. “Richard Stockton, one of the Princeton community’s wealthiest individuals and a slaveholder, donated the land on which the school’s first buildings were erected.”
On April 8 and 9, the seminary will host “Legacy and Mission: Theological Education and the History of Slavery,” a conference that will include a town hall meeting on the issue.
The school is among a growing contingent of educational institutions that have recognized their involvement in slavery and the benefits that flowed from it. Among the group are Yale, Harvard, Georgetown, and Princeton Universities, and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
The concept of compensation for the descendants of enslaved Africans has become a hotly debated issue in the 2020 presidential campaign. Democratic candidates including Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California, along with former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, support reparations.
Princeton Theological Seminary and other divinity schools are confronting the issue at a time when enrollment at many institutions is shrinking, yet also becoming increasingly diverse, said Stephen Lewis, president of the Forum for Theological Exploration, a Georgia-based Christian leadership organization that advocates for diversity.
Lewis views seminary proposals that target diversity and reparations not as initiatives that will replace people who already “have a seat at the table, but create a bigger table so that others can sit there and help create a new agenda” reflecting a changing landscape.
Stewart said that more than 90 percent of the seminary’s students receive need-based grants and most of those cover 80 percent to 100 percent of tuition.
Although slavery officially ended with the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, its connection to the current-day seminary is discomfiting for Michael Evans Jr., who is following in his father’s footsteps to become a pastor.
“These stories aren’t abstract to me,” said Evans, who was born in Mansfield, Texas. “My great-grandmother picked cotton, cleaned other people’s houses, and raised other people’s children to provide for us. My faith started with [women like her] in my family.“
Student Nicholas Young, 23, says he feels that discomfort in the everyday slights: the you-look-like-you-don’t-belong-here stares and the he’s-smart-for-a-black-man undertones that creep into conversations.
The ABS members commend the seminary for confronting the issue and remain hopeful about the prospect of change, but are adamant that any initiatives be substantive, not “superficial,” such as changing the name of a building. They also realize that they probably won’t be the beneficiaries.
“Just like my ancestors did things that would benefit us,” Evans said, “this may not help me, but it may help people who come behind me. This is for somebody else.”