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Descendants Of Enslaved People Get Checks In One Of The 1st Cash Reparations Programs


For more than a century, the Virginia Theological Seminary relied on the forced labor of Black Americans. Now the seminary is sending annual cash payments of $2,100 to the descendants of those people. It's one of the first cash reparations programs in the country, and it's meant to recognize the Black people who worked on campus for little or no money during the time of slavery, reconstruction and Jim Crow.

Ian Markham is president and dean of the seminary, and he proposed the reparations program. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

IAN MARKHAM: I'm delighted to be here. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And we're also joined by Gerald Wanzer. His great-grandfather and other family members worked at the seminary, and he's one of the beneficiaries or shareholders in the program. So good to have you here as well.

GERALD WANZER: Good afternoon. Glad to be here.

SHAPIRO: Mr. Wanzer, were you surprised when you heard that the seminary was going to start cutting checks?

WANZER: I was skeptical and also elated, just to think that all of a sudden, there's come up a program that was going to give recognition and retribution to the people who worked there in the past.

SHAPIRO: Dean Markham, so many politicians, universities, other institutions are wrestling with this issue and not taking action. Tell us about how you decided to just start the program.

MARKHAM: Well, we're a seminary, and we're approaching our 200th milestone as an institution. And we felt it was partly our Christian obligation to sit and think about who we are and the journey we've made and what's happened over those 200 years. And in a very real sense, we had forgotten, we had overlooked, we had ignored the deep debt this institution owed African Americans in particular. And we took the view that we should not mark our 200th anniversary without really looking at our history. And part of that work needs to recognize that we did not compensate the labor of those who were there in the pre-Civil War period. And in addition, we only paid less to African Americans than we did our white employees under Jim Crow. So we determined that the right thing to do was to a create reparations fund. And as we track down those to whom we have a debt, we will start making payments to them.

SHAPIRO: So, as you say, part of this project is finding the descendants of the people who worked at the seminary and unearthing the stories of those laborers. Gerald, I understand you have learned some of those stories of your ancestors for the first time. Tell us about what you've discovered about your relatives.

WANZER: My great-grandfather, Wallace Wanzer, was a blacksmith, and he worked there. He was born in 1838. So he was enslaved, and he probably, most likely, helped to do the metal work on that institution.

SHAPIRO: You know, there have been so many discussions about reparations taking the form of educational programs or housing grants. And this is one of the few, perhaps the first, that is actually giving money, cash payments. Ian, how did you settle on that form of reparations?

MARKHAM: The truth is that these estates, Gerald Wanzer's estate, was deprived of income because the seminary did not pay his forebears for their labor. And to my mind, that's as simple as that. When you pay people for labor, you do not then designate what it should be spent on. That's the prerogative of the recipient. And when it's paid into their estate, it's the prerogative of the descendants. And therefore, to my mind, this is simple. You send them a check, and you say, this is a small token of compensation that should have gone to your forebears. It now comes to the estate, and you're a beneficiary. Please spend it how you like. That's what everybody else does when they get compensation for their labor. That's what you do. That's what I do. That's what we should do here, too.

SHAPIRO: It seems like such a difficult thing to put a dollar amount, and yet that was what the seminary had to do, right? I mean, it's, I believe, 1% of the total endowment, about $1.7 million. How did you put a dollar figure on this commitment?

MARKHAM: So the reason why it was 1.7 million is that, you know, we have program that we've got to deliver. We've got an institution we've got to run. We've got a mission we've got to deliver. So it's a seed. It must grow. And as we make deeper and continuing connections with descendants of those people that we exploited, we will expand this fund.

And for me, one of the most important things, among the delights of seeing Gerald, is that we're building a relationship with Gerald. So we celebrated his 77th birthday on the campus, which was the highlight of my year. And Gerald has dining rights at the campus whenever he chooses as a beneficiary of the program, and we invite them to be part of the Virginia Theological Seminary community.

SHAPIRO: Gerald, what does that mean to you? What does it represent to you?

WANZER: It means a lot. First of all, I must say that a lot of the descendants were not happy with the program. And I have a brother that's 90 years old, and he just seems to be put off by all of a sudden, here we got - come up with people, white people, trying to come up and repair what happened in the past. But I don't agree with him.

SHAPIRO: Well, tell us how you feel about it. What does it mean to you?

WANZER: I feel, show me the money (laughter). But I'm all for it. I'm all for it because at last, we can get some type of recognition. That's the word - recognition.

SHAPIRO: Ian, you lead the institution that enslaved Gerald's ancestors. And so, just to conclude, as the voice of that institution, is there anything that you would like to say directly to Gerald?

MARKHAM: Gerald, I want you to know that I - on behalf of the institution that committed that crime against your ancestors, I utter a deep and profuse apology for the hurt and injury that we inflicted. And I also want you to know that we want to do everything we can to build relationships with you and your family, as part of a vision of a future that will be different, where all of God's people will be included and treated with respect and equality.

SHAPIRO: Gerald, would you like to respond?

WANZER: Yes. I accept your apology directly on my behalf. Like I said, there's a lot of other people that's not happy, but at least it's a start, and we have to start from somewhere. And this is a great, great beginning. I'd like to thank you for your efforts and for what has come about.

SHAPIRO: Ian Markham is the president and dean of the Virginia Theological Seminary, and Gerald Wanzer is one of the shareholders in the reparations program. Thank you both.

WANZER: Thank you for having me.

MARKHAM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEA WOLF SONG, "OLD FRIEND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.