Restoration and Reparations

“We, like N’COBRA and many other formations that have come before us, call for reparations to all African descended people in the United States for harms flowing from the ‘badges and incidents’ of slavery—the ways in which the practice of chattel slavery in the United States marked all Black people, regardless of whether they are direct descendants of Africans enslaved in the United States, for dehumanization, violence, structural exclusion, and discrimination.

This includes: racial terror, state-sanctioned segregation, and theft and destruction of Black people’s land, property, businesses, and homes in the Jim Crow era and beyond, housing discrimination and ‘redlining,’ and the ongoing effects of racial segregation, discrimination, and structural exclusion which represent ongoing impacts and harms of slavery that have not yet ceased or been remedied.

We also call for reparations for all Black people in the United States who have been subject to post-slavery policies and practices representing a continuation of harms inflicted in the context of chattel slavery, including family separation, state-sponsored sterilization and medical experimentation, mass criminalization and incarceration which followed slavery, and for the violence, institutionalization, discrimination and structural exclusion specifically targeting disabled Black people, and contributing to high rates of disability among Black people.”
—M4BL (Movement for Black Lives), “Reparations Now Toolkit”

“What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt. What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”
—Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations”

“We must move away from an idea of personal and individual ‘success’ and toward ecological economics, collective advancement, collective achievement, and collective wealth.”
—Diallo Kenyatta, The Bro Diallo Show

Background and Trends

Any discussion on reparations must begin with an acknowledgment of the ongoing genocide, oppression, and exploitation of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color so pervasive in the worldwide Euro-dominant, racist, capitalist system; in the nations and cultures where those Western cultures and ideologies originate; as well as in the nations and cultures that have been influenced and molded by invasion, colonialism, and socio-economic oppression. Ultimately, a true cessation of this aggression is required to ensure freedom, justice, and equity for all.

While we work toward a total liberation for all, we must acknowledge the hurts that can be healed, the faults that can be fixed, and the repair possible among communities suffering from the material outcomes of hundreds of years of oppression.

As this report is being written, we are in a time of renewed conversation about reparations for African Americans. Numerous scholars, think tanks, and policy organizations representing affected groups have offered their assessments. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” and the Reparations Now Toolkit from the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) are prime examples. We have also seen calls for legislation such as the proposal of H.R. 40, a bill that would establish a commission to study reparations.

As this cry for justice reverberates across our land, it would behoove Unitarian Universalism to look inward at its own history of oppression and exploitation of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color, as well as at the harm that has been articulated by members who are people of color in the near past and present. And to study and learn about the history of our own institutions and the models of redress being discussed and advocated for by Black leaders, Indigenous leaders, and other leaders of color.

Black activists and organizers have long understood the role that religious institutions play in institutional racism and therefore should play in reparations. For example, the 1969 Black Economic Development Conference wrote and issued the “Black Manifesto,” a call for $500 Million in reparations to be paid by US religious institutions.

This placement of responsibility is consistent with the role played by religious practices such as missionary colonialism and religious oppression, such as the use of Christianity to erase African culture and sow obedience among Black captives, as well as religious enforcement of culture, such as the Ku Klux Klan, a self-proclaimed Christian organization using religious rituals as tools of violence against Black people and white-identifying people who are not Protestant Christians.

Looking further back, we must acknowledge that Protestant theological thought, such as that espoused by theologians Increase and Cotton Mather, helped to articulate the conflation of European Identity with Christianity, righteousness, and purity to develop the concept of whiteness, inversely establishing anti-Blackness. [35]

Because religious institutions and groups often create, maintain, and cultivate cultural ideas, their complicity with racism, anti-Blackness, and white supremacy culture must be acknowledged and owned.

What do our own UU Principles and experiences teach us?

While Unitarian Universalism does have a history of resisting slavery and supporting the Civil Rights movement; it also has a history of institutional racism, support for cultural racism (Unitarian Minstrel Shows [36]), and its own experience with religious oppression of Black people (as evidenced by the Empowerment Controversy [37]).

Indeed, when one reads Unitarian abolitionist opinions on whether Black people had the right to physically resist kidnapping during the debates over the Fugitive Slave Act, or the opinions of Unitarian volunteers during the Union Army Port Royal experiments about whether Black people could maintain basic human industry, overtones of modern discussions on animal rights echo.

Surely, if our first Principle is to be believed, those captive people had worth and dignity; although their dignity was assailed, it was not degraded or diminished, and we should not disregard it now. And when we respect their inherent worth and dignity, we must conclude that they deserve what justice this generation is able to afford their memories.

Our limited scope of history means that we have not been restored to the wholeness that comes from a true accounting for the ways that our faith has been complicit in the oppression of Black people, Indigenous people, and poor people as well as other people of color.

The lack of identifiable and covenantal ways to air, process, and address damaging behavior by the dominant culture toward marginalized folx has caused an intolerable level of pain.

Beyond history, this report has endeavored to gather and present data on the current inequitable and oppressive treatment of people of color within Unitarian Universalism.

We need to identify and address and stop the many ways in which our institutional practices have caused harm and heed the cries for equity from people of color in our own Unitarian Universalist community.

We believe that healing is needed for those who have been harmed, and we also believe that our values call us toward community and a willingness to share the labor of healing the hurt together.

The Commission’s work affirms that reparations within Unitarian Universalism are imperative to both fulfilling the values of the second Principle (covenanting to affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations) and achieving the goal of a “beloved community.”

Further, our sixth Principle calls on us to work toward “a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all,” thus requiring we work for “justice for all.”

We call for the adoption of the following principles for reparations:

  • Resources need to be redirected toward investments needed to accomplish reparations as well as transform and shift our culture and practice toward more inclusion, diversity, and equity.
  • Risks should be born by our systems and institutions and not just by individuals.
  • Promising practices should be identified, curated, and made available as models.
  • A more uniform, flexible, and culturally competent regional structure is essential to support this institutional change at the congregational level.


The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) defines reparations as:

A process of repairing, healing and restoring a people injured because of their group identity and in violation of their fundamental human rights by governments, corporations, institutions and families. Those groups that have been injured have the right to obtain from the government, corporation, institution or family responsible for the injuries that which they need to repair and heal themselves. In addition to being a demand for justice, it is a principle of international human rights law.

The Anarchist Reparations Movement says,

“Reparations are bigger than a paycheck” is a saying among those seeking reparations. It requires land return, agency return, and the intentional commitment of resources to foster restoration of affected healthy communities through resource allocation, policy change, and targeted economic opportunities. Reparations takes into account the concept of “well-being,” as meaning health in all areas, spiritual, mental, physical, financial, social, environmental, to create a ‘horizon of possibilities.’ ” *

While investment in oppressed and tyrannized communities may take the form of support of individuals and groups may follow reparative philosophies when paying restitutions they have harmed, we also follow the lead of various other groups, such as N’COBRA, M4BL, and the United Nations in understanding reparations as specifically relating to groups of people.

Restoration requires truth telling, accountability, and the willingness to feel with others. It may also require innovative ways of power sharing, resource shifting, agency return, and cooperative economics to restore to well-being those who have been harmed directly as a result of oppression.

How do we know what is reparations and not something else? M4BL offers these criteria:

It is reparations if it includes:

  • An official acknowledgment and apology for harm, public education or memorial about the harm; and Compensation to a specific, defined group of individuals harmed by a violation, including descendants, as well as family and community members of individuals directly targeted for harm who were adversely affected; and
    • Action to restore individuals harmed to the position they were in before the initial harm occurred; and
    • Action to stop the systems, institutions, and practices causing the harm; and
    • Changes to laws, institutions, and systems aimed at ensuring that harm will not happen again.


We see restitution as having two definitions.

Groups such as M4BL set a context of reparations for all Black people that defines restitution as the measures intended to restore the survivor to the original situation before the violations occurred, including, as appropriate: restoration of liberty, enjoyment of human rights, identity, family life and citizenship, return to one’s place of residence (repatriation), restoration of employment, and return of property.

We understand the above mechanisms to be the material actions taken to achieve the big idea of reparations.

In common law systems, there are many times when restitution is called for, both for people and groups. Within any functioning community, there should be mechanisms whereby victims of harm are given restitution.


According to M4BL,

Divestment (in the form of resources, legitimacy, and power) from exploitative forces (including prisons, fossil fuels, police, surveillance, and corporations) and investment into infrastructure and services that support our people (including education, transportation, and the health and safety of our communities).

Divestment and investment strategies can take many forms and have many degrees of scale. When the Board of Trustees of a majority-white congregation chooses to work with a caterer who is a Black woman and her small business for their Board retreat lunch rather than a corporate chain restaurant, when well-to-do white church members raise money to replace the dead vehicle of a young lay leader of color, or when church foundations run a stock inventory to make sure their investments align with their values as closely as possible—these are all divestment/investment strategies.

Many Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color are enlisting white allies and co-laborers for direct financial, material, infrastructural, and institutional assistance in times of need. This assistance may include money, ride sharing, temporary housing facilitation, or in some cases, access to employment opportunities.

The Commission on Institutional Change agrees with M4BL that, while divestment and investment strategies are crucial elements of any plan to dismantle white dominance and capitalist oppression, they are not reparations; they may only be part of that process. M4BL points out that while these strategies address immediate harms, “a requirement of reparations is that those harmed are restored back to the condition they would have been in if the harm had not happened.” Divestment and investment strategies don’t guarantee such restoration.


In this report, we define reconciliation as two parties coming to a place of restored community with one another.

We recognize that first cessation of harm is necessary, and also that reconciliation is often not the goal of reparations, as it requires a desire from both parties, both those who have harmed and those harmed.

Badges and Incidents of Slavery

The phrase badges and incidents of slavery, coined by M4BL,refers to the “ongoing perceptions, discrimination, violence, or state or private policy or action that targets or taints any racial group or population that has previously been held in slavery or servitude.”

Because anti-Blackness is a primary factor within the system of white domination, so that even those whose ancestors were not directly affected by, for example, the Transatlantic Slave Trade that primarily affected West African people and those of West African descent, are still greatly disadvantaged by the effects of that history through the religious, cultural, and socio-economic oppression required to establish and perpetuate it.

Caribbean Black immigrants often have higher levels of income than Black people born in the US (though lower overall than similarly educated white immigrants). Facts like this are used by many conservatives to argue in favor of bootstrap politics, but a closer look shows that this group is affected by the “badges and incidents of slavery.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates summed this up beautifully during the US House Judiciary Committee (Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties) hearing on H.R. 40, Legislation to Study Slavery Reparations, saying,

There is a difference in the income between Caribbean Black immigrants and Blacks [born on the continent]. This is true; people who come to America to pursue opportunity generally do better than the masses of the whole group. This is true of all immigrants. However, what happens when you look at the second generation, and the third generation of those Blacks? Unlike all other groups they quickly become “African-American.”

These Black immigrants to the US, like many other Black people, suffer under a generations-old system of anti-Blackness upheld and conditioned into the culture by religious views and theology, politics, literature, and advertising.

Churches, as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said in his 1966 Ware Lecture, act as the “moral guardian of the community and of society,” and in many ways, churches within the US have wholly accepted, supported, and perpetuated these predatory cultural habits.

This report finds that many of those coming into our own community have experienced harm due to the existing culture of anti-Blackness, theological erasure and exclusion, institutional neglect, financial oppression, and violence already operating within Unitarian Universalism. Reparative action must include a thorough understanding of this harm.

Recommendation for Reparations

As an act of reparations, funding and administrative support for groups that allow Black/Indigenous/people of color and other marginalized groups to convene and gain the support necessary to worship and serve in predominantly white communities should remain a priority.

As noted in our discussion of Hospitality and Inclusion, people of color reported over and over that they were the only or one of a very few non-white people in their congregation, which makes opportunities to gather with other Unitarian Universalists who are Black/Indigenous/people of color critical. The establishment of specific organization such as DRUUMM (Diverse and Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries), LUUNA (Latina/o Unitarian Universalist Networking Association), and other groups that allow people who share an identity to come together AND to continue to survive in situations where they are isolated in their core identities. Most recently, the formation of BLUU (Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism) has given birth to a new community because reparations monies were paid to BLUU as a result of the promises that were promised but not delivered in the 1970s. The principle behind the awarding of money to BLUU was continued in an agreement to provide administrative and other support to DRUUMM and should be expanded as part of a reparative practice to other identity-based organizations.

  • Action: Establish a position to provide increased ongoing administrative and travel support to DRUUMM, BLUU, TRUUsT, and EqUUal Access, the organizations currently representing many of the people whose identities are marginalized in Unitarian Universalism. This would allow the leadership of these groups to devote their time and effort to advocacy and programs that are necessary for their communities’ sustainability and would ensure that important administrative functions, such as mailing lists, membership lists, and donation lists, are maintained for the long-term survival and growth of these vital organizations.
  • Action: Maintain a list of all congregations that are engaged in caucusing and that have ongoing people of color or other identity caucuses at the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations as another way to communicate with vital populations within our congregations.

Conditions for Full Reparations, from the United Nations

According to the United Nations, full and effective reparation includes the following components: restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction, and guarantees of non-repetition. This is summed up well by the International Commission of Jurists (“Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law):

  • Restitution refers to measures that restore victims to the original situation before they suffered gross violations of international human rights law and/or serious violations of international humanitarian law. For example, restoration of liberty, identity, family life and citizenship, return to one’s place of residence, restoration of employment and return of property.
  • Compensation refers to a monetary quantifiable award for any economically assessable damage, whether pecuniary or non-pecuniary, as appropriate and proportional to the gravity of the violation and the circumstances of each case, such as lost opportunities, loss of earnings, and moral damage.
  • Rehabilitation refers to medical and psychological care as well as legal and social services.
  • Satisfaction refers to a broad category of measures, ranging from those aiming at a cessation of violations, to truth-seeking, the search for the disappeared, the recovery and reburial of remains, public apologies, judicial and administrative sanctions, commemoration and memorialization, and human rights training.
  • Guarantees of non-repetition comprise broad structural measures of a policy nature such as institutional reforms aimed at civilian control over military and security forces, strengthening judicial independence, the protection of human rights defenders, and the promotion of human rights standards in public service, law enforcement, the media, industry, and psychological and social services.

Recommendation for Productive Conflict

Methods for encouraging and channeling productive conflict should be established and promoted to decrease harm.

Unitarian Universalists tend to be conflict-averse. In part this is because so many UUs came into our movement out of conflict with other faith traditions. It may also be because we spend very little time talking about our shared theology and beliefs, which means we are not held together by deep faith convictions. While some forms of conflict are not productive, such as people simply resisting authority or constantly asserting their own needs and wants, other forms are critical in these times of change. Change produces conflict, and in order to continue to be flexible and responsive to the needs of today, we must be more comfortable with change and thus with the conflict that it may generate. Regional gatherings should emphasize the nature of change in conflict and allow leaders an opportunity to gain skills in dealing with these. Conflict aversion among key leaders, especially in those in mediating positions such as UUA regional staff members and professional good officers and ministers, prevents productive resolution of conflict, often leading to harm of those most vulnerable.

  • Action: Develop and curate resources for skill building in dealing with conflict and require competency in these skills of all regional staff to promote engagement with conflict rather than shutting down conflict, which often continues oppression.
  • Action: Prioritize and report on the progress of the UUA’s Conflict Transformation Team and document it as a model for congregational teams.
  • Action: Ensure that those serving as mediators or good officers for all professional associations are educated about and skilled in conflict engagement.

The Conflict Transformation Team, from UUA Congregational Life Staff

The following is a statement about the formation of a new Conflict Engagement Team in 2019.

Congregational Life recognizes that conflict is a natural part of being in community. Yet most of us are never taught how to engage with conflict in [productive] ways. Creating a Congregational Life Conflict Engagement Team (CLCET) gives us the opportunity to address multiple needs:

As we intentionally become an Association with greater leadership from communities traditionally marginalized, and with cultural differences that push against the norms of the white supremacy culture, more conflict is inevitable. We need people who can bring a strong lens of equity and inclusion, who can identify and address oppressive behavior, and who will embody the resiliency necessary to keep showing up to engage in congregational conflict.

In creating a team to normalize and provide expert support for [productive] approaches to conflict, we will make it easier for people (especially leaders holding marginalized identities) to know what to expect and to feel like they can reach out to get the support they need.

Congregational Life staff who serve as primary contacts will benefit from having others come into the congregation to deal with high-level conflict.

A team comprised of staff and lay leaders helps us draw from wisdom in the field and can create a pipeline for future Congregational Life staff.

Recommendation for Identifying Reparation Procedures

Channels and procedures for identifying harm, making amends, and financial reparations should be established.

Throughout US history, institutions have been built upon an economy that used stolen lands and slave or indentured labor to transfer resources to a small group that became wealthy.

One result of this systematic exploitation is that communities of color in general have fewer financial resources than other communities. That means the cost of trying to enter into volunteer or underpaid leadership in Unitarian Universalism affects them disproportionately due to financial and time burdens taken on by uncompensated lay leaders as well as education and credentialing fees for religious professionals.

  • Action: Provide funds to Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color for travel to and registration for General Assembly, regional assemblies, and other key gatherings such as youth and young adult programs, as well as to members of other groups that face marginalization, and frame this as an act of congregational reparations.
  • Action: Develop the capacity to work with congregations with fewer than twenty-five members or that are closing their doors to accomplish redirecting their resources to the Association in some manner rather than making donations to their local community. Reserve these resources to fund next-generation communities and practices.
  • Action: Study the reparations movement, and examine implications for institutions at all levels of Unitarian Universalism.

First Parish Unitarian Universalist in Needham, Massachusetts: A Case Study, by Rev. Catie Scudera

This is an excerpt from a sermon entitled “Northern Reparations.” Rev. Scudera also delivered a follow-up sermon, “Revisiting Our Slavery Past.”

In 2017, the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism organizing collaborative challenged Unitarian Universalist congregations to reflect on how white supremacy lives on in our institutions. For the second “UU White Supremacy Teach-In,” the organizers asked us to research the history of black membership in our institutions and black residents in our localities. As we here in Needham prepared for the second Teach-In, I dutifully read the Wikipedia entry on Needham’s census records and demographics, and I typed into Google: “Needham slavery.” Thanks to Google Books, I began to pull on a thread about slavery in Needham which has unraveled my assumption that slavery didn’t happen here in our small, poor New England farming town.

What I’m about to share with you, you may find disturbing, unbelievable, and shocking. I know I found it so, as did other members of our congregation who helped me with this research: Jeanette Anderson, Marianne McGowan, Becky Siebens, and Tad Staley.

What I first uncovered in late 2017 was First Parishioner George Kuhn Clarke’s History of Needham, Massachusetts, 1711-1911, a 200th anniversary history of our town. I have a physical copy, which, to my memory, was gifted to me by our own Jamie Turbayne. What I had never noticed before was that on page 565 begins a chapter on slaves in Needham. Interestingly, in my paper copy, that chapter’s pages are “unopened,” which means the binder did not perform the cut to allow the pages to be opened and read. So, I’m not the first to have not read this chapter.

George Kuhn Clarke wrote, “The institution of human slavery never flourished in Needham, but a few blacks were held in bondage here, as the Church records and inventories of estates testify. At the time of the War of the American Revolution, Captain William Faris, a Loyalist, and William Bowdoin, Esq., were the only slave holders in town, and were each taxed for one slave. [Though, the late Horace Mann stated that he found the names of four slaves of Captain Faris:— Jack, who went to England in 1779, Sylvia, who was sold to Sir Henry Frankland, Terence, who died of the smallpox, and Phebe… {who} was supported by the Faris family in her old age.] In 1775, ‘two negro children belonging to Captain William Faris named Prince and Silvia’ were baptized by the minister of the First Church.”

(That’s us!)

I was horrified, and did not know what to do with this information. I needed time to think, reflect, and recalibrate. It had never occurred to me that slavery happened here.

Speaking with Becky and Marianne from our Racial Justice Task Force, we decided to perform further research and share the beginnings of what we found with all of you through worship and adult education events during this Black History Month. Our research is not complete, but here’s what we can tell you:

Our Archives Committee chair, Jeanette Anderson, has yet to find much information about William Bowdoin, whether he was part of First Parish, or who he held in bondage. Captain Faris, Jeanette learned, was not a member of this congregation—he was an Anglican who attended services in Cambridge and was formally excused from paying taxes to First Parish in Needham. We don’t know why, then, he had Sylvia and Prince baptized here by our second minister, Reverend Samuel West, especially as West would become a founding member of the American Unitarian Association and, by our understanding, was devoutly anti-slavery.

I’ll admit, when I learned Captain Faris was Episcopalian, I felt relieved! I actually thought to myself, “Ah, he’s someone else’s problem!” Isn’t that awful?

But, the same week Jeanette uncovered Faris’s affiliation, Tad, Marianne, Becky, and I met with Dr. Gloria Greis, the Executive Director of the Needham History Center and Museum. Dr. Greis has always been a generous partner to First Parish and the Town of Needham in uncovering, preserving, and sharing our history, and we asked her specifically about Prince and Sylvia.

She found so much more.

At this meeting, Dr. Greis handed us copies of two documents: The first, a transcription of two 1890 handwritten letters from Robert Mansfield, who grew up in Needham and attested that he had met a “full blooded African” named Boston Fude, who, with his wife Jenney and their friend Primas King, had previously been enslaved by Charles Deming’s family of West Needham, now Wellesley. (Interestingly, Clarke’s 1911 history mentions Boston Fude by name as a “free negro” living in Needham in the early 1800s, without mentioning that he had been enslaved before slavery was outlawed in the Commonwealth.) Mansfield concluded one of his letters, “[Boston] and his wife deserve a written monument… at the hands of the citizens of Needham, and especially of Wellesley.”

Again, I felt comfortably removed from slavery in Needham, knowing that the Deming slaveholders were really from Wellesley. Not that the separate West Needham church even existed until 1798 nor Wellesley as a separate town until 1881, but still, I felt a comfortable remove.

But, the second document Dr. Greis gave us was from the Vital Records of Needham, a list of births, baptisms, and deaths recorded primarily by our first two ministers, Revs. Jonathan Townsend and Samuel West. In both the births & baptisms and the deaths sections, at the very end of the alphabetized list of white family names, is a separate category for “negroes/ servants.” Under births and baptisms, we found Sylvia and Prince, both baptized on August 19, 1775. Also listed were: Rose, a “negro child of Mrs. Sarah Deming’s,” baptized here by Rev. Townsend in May 1750; Jethro, a “negro child—servant to Nathaniel Tolman,” baptized here by Rev. Townsend in 1744, and then two more “negro” children without white families attached to them, Violet and Phoebe, both baptized here by Rev. West in 1768 and 1773, respectively.

As I said before, the Demings lived in West Needham, and it’s possible that Boston and Rose were enslaved by the same Deming family; there were two Deming families in Needham, both with a patriarch named Charles, but only one Charles was married to a Sarah. The Tolman family who enslaved the child Jethro lived right here in “East” Needham in the historic Tolman-Gay House at Central Avenue and Gay Street. Nathaniel Tolman’s father, also named Nathaniel, was one of the original members of this congregation, signing the church covenant in 1720 when Rev. Townsend arrived.

On the death rolls for “negroes/servants,” we found Rose again, who died just a year after her baptism, and three other “negro children” who died in the 1750s nameless, “belonging to” Andrew Gardner, Samuel Glover, and Jonathan Gay. According to Jeanette’s research, Andrew Gardner is not on our church rolls, but two other Gardners (Lucy and Elizabeth) are. Samuel Glover is not in our church rolls, but Lydia Glover, possibly his mother, is; Samuel himself died young in 1756 in the French and Indian War, leaving a widow and young son, also named Samuel. However, Jonathan Gay’s family was closely tied to First Parish, donating money for the purchase of our beloved Paul Revere Bell for the 1811 100th anniversary of the town.

I must lift up, there were so many children enslaved here—I cannot help but wonder, heartbroken: Where were their parents? Twentieth-century historian William Piersen wrote that in New England, enslaved children were often brought up from the West Indies, where the work was too harsh for many children to survive. Furthermore, Piersen wrote that New England slaveholders were not wealthy enough to enslave whole families, so they typically “regarded black babies as an unproductive expense… [and] were willing to sell or give away their slaves’ children for other masters to raise.” And we know from Clarke’s 1911 history that there were many “free mulattos” in Needham in the early nineteenth century, after slavery was outlawed; like in the South, some of these children may have been born of their so-called “masters.” There is no implication from any source of a happy family picture for these enslaved Needham children.

There was one more name on the Vital Records death rolls, a name that disturbed me greatly: Homer, called the “negro servant” of Reverend Jonathan Townsend, the first minister of First Parish in Needham.

I did not want to believe that our first minister was a slaveholder. I wanted Homer to be an indentured servant, or a free black worker, or any servitude status but enslaved.

My alma mater, Harvard Divinity School, maintains the archives of our denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association. I reached out to Gloria Korsman, a Unitarian Universalist at First Parish in Cambridge herself and a research librarian at Harvard Divinity’s library, to see if she could find me more information about Rev. Townsend and Homer.

Within the span of a single morning, she found the information I dreaded: in a biographical volume of Harvard College graduates, it states that Rev. Townsend’s father-in-law, Captain Gregory Sugars, “provided the means for building the pleasant parsonage which still stands at the corner of Nehoiden Street and Central Avenue. Perhaps from the same source came the minister’s slave, Homer, who for periods served the parish as sexton.” Indeed, a quick search for the name “Homer” in Clarke’s 1911 history revealed this sentence: “On June 5, 1754, the Rev. Mr. Townsend was granted 1 [pound], 1 [shilling], 4 [pence], for his servant’s taking care of the meeting-house in 1753; this was probably the negro Homer, who died April 9, 1754.”

The Harvard biography went on that one month after Homer’s death at the May town meeting, Rev. Townsend threatened to resign unless he received better pay in reliable currency. Though the biographer, university archivist Clifford Shipton, didn’t make the connection, I wonder if Townsend could only “manage” serving First Parish for as long as he did because he held an enslaved person in his home.

I wonder if our first meetinghouse would have stood as long as it did if it hadn’t been for Homer’s unpaid labor. I wonder how much of the foundation of our church rests on Homer’s shoulders, not to mention the labor of all those enslaved black children whose enslavers paid taxes to our congregation.

If it hadn’t been for Black Lives of UU, I may have never found the entry on slavery in Clarke’s history. We owe that organization our thanks for pushing us to find the truth….

But slavery in Needham, specifically, seems to have been buried, forgotten. I hope that we can recalibrate our assumptions about our town and Commonwealth, reconcile with this history, and work within ourselves and with our town to make some sort of reparation to the enslaved residents of Needham.

Recommendation for Acknowledging UU's Foundational Complicity

Widespread practices of acknowledging Unitarian Universalism’s foundational complicity with racist practices, especially against Indigenous and Black people, are essential to understanding the need for continued support.

  • Action: Develop an Associational fund for scholarships and travel funds for people of color, Indigenous, and other marginalized groups, especially transgender and disabled people, and those living below their area’s median income to allow a greater diversity of people to be sustained while working toward credentialing as religious professionals and to provide support for a diversified religious leadership.
  • Action: Support religious educators of color pursuing credentialing with financial assistance to enable these invaluable role models to be present for families in an era when a higher percentage of children in our nation than ever are of color or multiracial.


The complexities of harm left by hundreds of years of oppression cannot be overstated; therefore this report will not issue “one size fits” all responses and policies for reparative actions.

While we offer takeaways as we have in other chapters, we believe that the impetus and responsibility for innovation and implementation lies primarily in the hands of the institutions and actors holding power.

The same energy, foresight, determination, capacity for organization, invention, and passion displayed in the European conquest of the world should be brought to bear in the dismantling of its oppressive, ecocidal, and genocidal practices.

  • The UUA should invest in researching the best reparations platform from existing international, national, and local models.
  • Best practices for this research would include prioritizing the voices of those most marginalized and harmed within Unitarian Universalism.
  • The cultivation of reparative values within our theology is a moral imperative and the only way to provide true integrity to our existing Principles
  • We need an ongoing commitment to reparations at the institutional level under the authority of the Board of Trustees and ongoing reform and accountability groups.
  • While Unitarian Universalists probably do not have the will or the collective imagination to offset the harm done, especially to Black and Indigenous people among us, we can offer reparations by ensuring the continued funding of spaces that allow marginalized people to survive among us, such as DRUUMM, BLUU, TRUUsT, EqUUal Access, etc.
  • Congregations that are in morbid decline or closing their doors should be actively encouraged to donate their resources to the Association in some manner rather than making donations to their local community. These resources could be used to fund next-generation communities and practices.

* A “horizon of possibilities” means the entire spectrum of beliefs, practices, and experiences that are open before a particular society, given its ecological, technological, and cultural limitations (Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Generic Publishing, 2015.)