Until two years ago, Linda Johnson-Thomas had no idea that her grandfather, John Samuel Thomas Jr., had been an enslaved worker at Virginia Theological Seminary. All she knew was that for over a decade, he had worked at the school as a farm laborer before moving up to head janitor.
65-year-old Johnson-Thomas stated: "All I knew was that he grew up on the seminary. We knew there were slaves in Alexandria -- but we didn't know the specifics."
Between 1823 and 1951, the school forced hundreds of Black people to work for little or no pay as farmers, dishwashers, cooks, and other jobs.
The seminary announced in 2019 that it had put aside $1.7 million to pay the descendants of the school’s slaves reparations. The school honored its promise this year, and started handing out $2,100 annual payments to each direct descendant of the enslaved workers.
Fifteen people have received payments so far, including Johnson-Thomas and her sister. The seminary is expecting to pay out compensation to many more descendants as they are identified.
Despite the school’s promise, the recipients of the payments were wary at first.
"Though no amount of money could ever truly compensate for slavery, the commitment of these financial resources means that the institution's attitude of repentance is being supported by actions of repentance," Rev. Ian S. Markham, dean and president of the seminary, said in a statement. "It opens up a moment for us to reflect long and hard on what it will take for our society and institutions to redress slavery and its consequences with integrity and credibility."
He added: "As we seek to mark the seminary's milestone of 200 years, we do so conscious that our past is a mixture of sin as well as grace. This is the seminary recognizing that along with repentance for past sins, there is also a need for action."
When Johnson-Thomas learned that her grandfather was among the school's laborers, she was surprised.
"My first thought was disbelief, which is why I scheduled a meeting with the dean," she stated, so she went with her sister to meet with Markham, who explained the seminary’s decision to issue reparations.
"His point was, we are equal people and we realize and we recognize the racism in our past. We know there is no amount of money that can rectify what transpired back then, but we want to do something toward healing," she said.
Gerald Wanzer, who has lived within five miles of the school for years, stated that he was called by the school in 2019. They were seeking more information about his great-grandfather, who was a blacksmith in the school in the 1850s.
Wanzer revealed that he was skeptical about the call, but five of his family members -- a brother, a sister and a couple of nephews – have each received a check from the seminary.
"They can never make up for past transgressions. I just hope that people don't take this as just a money giveaway and instead look at the whole issue of why this happened, why some of it is still happening. It's been 150 years," Wanzer stated.
Ebonee Davis, the seminary's associate, stated that the program goes beyond financial reparations.
"With an understanding that no amount will ever be enough, we are allowing shareholders to be creative in their requests," she said. “Some people are donating the money while others are submitting written wishes requesting it goes to others. The seminary is also allowing descendants to access the campus in ways their ancestors could not. That includes free use of amenities such as the cafeteria, coffee shop and computer lab.”
She added: "So far the community has received this quite well. We had one family that was not interested in participating. They felt that it was too little, too late. But I let them know the door was always open."