“Princeton Seminary Repents for Its Ties to Slavery” – a Flawed Process

by Mark Lewis Taylor

A news release at Princeton Seminary’s website front page announced that “Princeton Seminary Repents for Its Ties to Slavery.” This means that that the Board of Trustees at Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) “unanimously endorsed . . . an action plan to repent for its ties to slavery.” With the news release came an “Action Plan,” a “Timeline” for its implementation, and a “Frequently Asked Questions” section.

This new announcement is the latest step in what has been a longer process. PTS began formally investigating its ties to slavery at least from Spring of 2016. At that time, President Craig Barnes appointed a research committee or task force to conduct the investigation. Before then, students at PTS had already been organizing vigorously for campus and curricular change after the militarized repression of the black community in Ferguson, Missouri, so in turmoil after the murder of Michael Brown by a policeman there in November 2014.

“. . . students at PTS had already been organizing vigorously for campus and curricular change after the militarized repression of the black community in Ferguson, Missouri . . .”
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Princeton seminarians traveled to Ferguson to be part of the resistance there. Just one of several PTS students making the trip was Nyle Fort, an M.Div. graduate, now a Princeton University doctoral student. Nationwide black resistance had already intensified after the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin and only strengthened with events in Ferguson, with PTS even having a “hoodie solidarity day” in the campus quad to seek justice for Trayvon and his family. In December 2014 PTS’s Association of Black Seminarians (ABS) and others led a multiracial march from the PTS quad into Nassau Street in Princeton’s downtown. Seminary students, faculty, staff, and also the President, participated in that march. As resistance occurred during this time students  at Princeton university also held a sit-in at the Princeton University President’s office in November 2015 with some seminarians’ support.

The PTS research committee’s and task force’s report, launched in 2016, was then published in October 2018. With its release there also occurred many critical discussions of its disturbing findings about the seminary’s financial ties to slavery and its faculty and trustees owning slaves. These discussions involved faculty, students, administrators and outside scholars, ministers and others. I as a faculty member was pleased to participate in a number of these. What is impressive and to be commended is this: simply that the report was commissioned, and that it showed much hard work and expressed considerable courage by many. I appreciated too the prominent and regular follow-up opportunities for campus discussion. These were all welcome steps in what the new action plan now terms “our community’s journey of repair.”

There is major flaw in the process, though, and it is even more prominently on display in Friday’s newly released documents.

I surely welcome the newly announced action plan’s offering of some major “new initiatives,” including scholarships for black students and for those from other “under-represented groups,” a renaming of the library for Theodore Sedgwick Wright and of Black Church Studies Center, the various curriculum changes and other actions. By the way, to my memory, the Black Church Studies Center was first conceived, founded and first-directed by former PTS professor and first-ever tenured African American woman on the PTS faculty, Dr. Yolanda Pierce. She is now Dean of Howard Divinity School.) Further, I wager and hope that the PTS leadership is still open to hearing the strong criticisms of the new action plan that will still need to be made as it is implemented.

But here’s the flaw in the Board of Trustees’ process. The new action plan was presented Friday as “a direct response to” the researching committee’s own report of October 2018. There is no mention – not anywhere that I can find in Friday’s documents – of the role of black students played in the nation-wide movement or the more recent response ABS had made to the October 2018 report.

“ABS’s challenging call for restitution, and the public notoriety concerning the challenge, was a major cause of the research committee/task force needing to meet this year and make more concrete recommendations . . .”
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Just five months after the research committee’s report, the Association of Black Seminarians (ABS) issued a unanimously affirmed petition in March of 2019 that challenged PTS to make “restitution” for its deep entanglement in slavery. ABS’s challenging call for restitution, and the public notoriety concerning the challenge, was a major cause of the research committee/task force needing to meet this year and make more concrete recommendations about specific actions that were only vaguely hinted at in the conclusion of the 2018 report.

I signed the ABS petition for restitution, with another faculty member, and along with numerous others who represented a wide array of backgrounds, many of them recipients of PTS Masters, Ph.D. degrees, and of diverse training at PTS. I signed not because I agreed with every aspect of the restitution call, but because, as I said in a note alongside my signature, “This can be a start toward political and economic implementation of that demand [for black reparations].”

Failing to mention this ABS call for restitution, and to credit only the 2018 report for the resultant “action plan,” is a woeful act of neglect, perhaps an intentional omission.

The truth is that the ABS with its March 2019 call for restitution had placed the Seminary under considerable pressure since the public release of the call. And most recently, in fact on October 17, the day the Board was voting on the “action plan,” nearly 80 students, black, Asian, LatinX, whites and more, all dressed in black and encircling the perimeter of Miller Chapel’s interior (also lining the front row of the balcony) displayed a banner before the Board and other worshipers declaring their hopes for the plan, “Substance, Not Symbols” (see photo above post, photo from The Princetonian). Moreover, I had been receiving word that PTS Board members were encouraging and appreciative of the organizing work that ABS had been doing across the months of Spring and Fall 2019.

Why has the Board now presented its action plan without acknowledging the challenging voices of PTS’s black students and their numerous allies? As I read it, the answer is that the Board wants us and the public to think that this action plan comes out of the report’s own call for “confession and repentance,” and from its own “truth-telling” regarding the seminary’s racism, its whiteness and its historical entanglements in slavery.

It appears that the new report only wants to foreground a drama of its own piety of repentance, without admitting that it needed the pressure and resistance of those in its midst who most feel the impact of slavery’s legacy.

It should be remembered that the research committee’s 2018 report’s own final chapter made no mention of concrete and specific actions. It offered only vague generalities about “intentionally pursuing a justice-making and reconciling community” for a “new future” (pages 52 and 53 of the 2018 report). There was little, if any, penchant for specificity in the 2018 research committee report that called for action.

“It appears that the new report only wants to foreground a drama of its own piety of repentance, without admitting that it needed the pressure and resistance of those in its midst who most feel the impact of slavery’s legacy.”
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It was ABS’s call that “threw the fat in the fire” and to whom much credit belongs for the “action plan” we now have before us.

After such a process, even though there are some welcome components of the newly announced plan, coming debates will dramatize that the plan’s content is also hardly sufficient. A Board of Trustees action plan that erases any mention of the call for restitution by its black students and allies and the pressure they mobilized on campus, is also likely to be a Board that is unable to offer a plan of real substance to those same students and to PTS as a whole.

The neglect of the ABS call for restitution was further compounded by the Board in another way. When the call for restitution was issued, ABS students and we faculty were told that the researching committee as task force would make recommendations to the Board about how to respond to the ABS call for restitution. But once those recommendations were formulated, no airing of those recommendations, either with the ABS or with the faculty, was allowed. Faculty had explicitly asked, by a  unanimous voice vote last Spring 2019 to see and discuss those recommendations made to the Board.

The Board, though, held firm and apparently did not want to involve any other voices other than those appointed to its own task force/research committee. The members of that task force who sent up the recommendations include esteemed faculty and student colleagues and my respect for them is in no way diminished. Still, the narrowing of the discussion, precisely at that critical point of referring recommendations, a narrowing that drastically reduced the horizon of the conversation that we needed to have, left the process a markedly flawed one.

“Is it really repentance when we gloss the uncomfortable truth that it took black resistance to goad us toward ‘our community’s journey of repair?’ ”
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Is this what the process of repentance should look like? Is there real confession and repentance without acknowledging the struggle, pain, lament and calls for restitution of those who have most suffered and had risen to fight our institution’s legacy of slavery? Is it really repentance when we gloss the uncomfortable truth that it took black resistance to goad us toward “our community’s journey of repair?”

The headline, “Princeton Seminary Repents . . .” hides both the ABS call to restitution and the flawed process of not acknowledging that call.

And when soon there comes vigorous debate and conflict over the plan’s actual content, that debate will be, in part, because of this flawed process.

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