Slavery and Justice at Brown
A Personal Reflection
Over fifteen years have passed since the inauguration of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. Launched against the backdrop of a surging national debate over slavery reparations, the committee was asked to investigate and disclose Brown’s historical relationship to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade and, more broadly, to organize academic events and activities that might help our university community to think deeply and rigorously about the complex historical, moral, political, and legal questions raised by the reparations issue. When we undertook the work, none of us anticipated its international visibility or its potential to inspire so many similar studies on other campuses. Reflecting on the initiative today, I still find myself surprised by the many ways in which Brown’s investigation aroused public interest (and sometimes consternation), spurred self-reflection, uncovered forgotten individual and institutional histories, and found an important place in the ongoing national effort to deal with the legacy of slavery.
At the time of my election as president of Brown in 2001, I was serving as president of Smith College. After my appointment but while still at Smith, I was informed by Brown’s interim president, Sheila Blumstein, that an uproar over free speech had erupted on the campus. The controversy began with the publication of a paid advertisement written by conservative activist David Horowitz deriding the idea of slavery reparations. In the March 13, 2001, Brown Daily Herald ad, Horowitz asserted, in essence, that African Americans were fortunate that their ancestors had been taken from Africa, since they today enjoy a per capita income greater than the modern inhabitants of the nations from which their ancestors had been taken. He further claimed that, “if not for the anti-slavery attitudes … [and] sacrifices” of white Americans, “blacks in America would still be slaves.”1 These claims, and several more in the advertisement, seemed not only to exhibit strangely contorted reasoning but also to offer an unusually blatant defense of the manifest immorality of slavery. The publication of the advertisement sparked controversy on several campuses around the nation, but what transformed the dispute at Brown into a national firestorm was the decision by a group of outraged students to retaliate against the Brown Daily Herald by stealing a day’s press run of the paper. Given that I had not yet assumed office, I chose not to voice publicly my opinions about the controversy, but the episode gave me an indication of what awaited me as a great-granddaughter of slaves heading an institution of Brown’s history and stature.
The slavery issue resurfaced at Brown a short time later. In March 2002, less than a year after my tenure as president began, the Reparations Coordinating Committee, a group headed by Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, publicly identified Brown, Yale, and Harvard as “probable targets” of reparations lawsuits. The Brown Daily Herald, reporting the story, noted that “researchers” had already established that Brown did not in fact have ties to slavery—an assertion that was, in retrospect, patently untrue. The threat of litigation was also widely reported in national media, prompting questions from many alumni. What was Brown’s relationship to slavery, they asked?
In thinking about how to resolve conflicting assertions about Brown and slavery, I pondered an uncomfortable dilemma. To simply ignore the question seemed not only irresponsible but also unworthy of a university, whose fundamental mission is the pursuit of knowledge. At the same time, I understood that any action I took to address the issue could easily be misunderstood or deemed compromised because of my race and origins. It is a peculiar consequence of the history of slavery and race in this country that African American perspectives on these vital issues are routinely discounted, derided, and dismissed. Where I stood on racial matters large and small, whether I had a reparations “agenda,” would be recurrent questions during my time as president, even as I faced and fulfilled all the other responsibilities of a university presidency.
After discussing the matter with members of my cabinet, I concluded that this was an issue best addressed as a scholarly project, driven by faculty, without my involvement or oversight. The approach of Brown’s 250th anniversary celebration seemed to offer an ideal occasion not only to set the record straight about the role of slavery in the institution’s founding but also to offer a helpful model of how universities might address controversial questions with the most rigorous academic standards. Further, with the approach of the bicentennial of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade by the British Parliament and U.S. Congress and the worldwide observances planned for the occasion, the venture promised to place Brown in a leadership role in interpreting the lessons and obligations of this history. Finally, I imagined that my own history offered Brown a singular opportunity to tell its story in a different light from peer institutions slow to acknowledge similarly compromised racial histories.
Appointing a committee to examine the university’s historic ties to slavery and the slave trade thus promised several benefits. It offered Brown a leading role in addressing a pressing national issue. It provided an opportunity for the university to confront and in some fashion to redress a historic wrong and to do so in a way that could be instructive for others confronting large-scale human rights abuses, present as well as past. Last but not least, it offered an opportunity for every person who cared about Brown to learn the truth of its past. It has always struck me as odd that a university so loved by grateful alumni would evade the truth about itself. Would not a university’s unwillingness to examine the facts of its own history impinge upon its scholarly credibility? What of a university’s ethical identity? Do not the same obligations to openness and transparency that prevail in the realm of research and teaching apply also to the university’s accounting of its own history?
Having appointed a scholarly committee and put its work sufficiently beyond my reach, I thought this would be a fairly straightforward undertaking. In retrospect, this assumption was naive. Confronting massive human rights violations that have privileged some and disenfranchised others is, at its heart, a divisive undertaking. As the committee’s report noted, such exercises run up against not only powerful vested interests but also a natural human “impulse to evade, extenuate, or deflect the full burden of the past.”2 This impulse is perhaps most acute in societies that have promoted forgetting as the best way to deal with the wounds that such violations inevitably leave behind. Thus the initial announcement of the committee’s appointment was greeted with predictions of a disastrous outcome: fund-raising would decline, the university’s reputation would be sullied, and I would be personally attacked and ridiculed, if not dismissed. Such concerns, I should note, came not only from those angered and aggrieved by the very idea of such an inquiry but also from supporters and advocates, friends and loved ones. Indeed, on the day of the first news report about the committee’s existence I received a phone call from an eminent scholar and dear friend expressing concern that I had perhaps “lost my mind” in taking on such a controversial subject.
Thankfully, none of the dire predictions came to pass. Today we can affirm that the steering committee’s work enhanced rather than sullied Brown’s reputation while bequeathing to the university and its students a legacy of truth telling that may continue to inspire excellence in stewardship and citizenship for decades to come. Perhaps most important, the successful work of the committee has disproved the assertion that confronting the history and legacy of gross historical injustices can only come at a severe cost to social harmony and institutional reputation.
For me, as for many other members of the Brown community, the history unearthed by the steering committee provided abundant opportunities for self-reflection. As the committee’s report pointed out, we live, work, study, and teach amidst artifacts and potent remnants of grievous injustice, most of which pass unnoticed. Perhaps the most potent remnant for me was a pair of portraits that hung in my office depicting James Manning, the university’s founding president, and his wife, Margaret. A minister, Manning came to Rhode Island from Pennsylvania in 1764 to found North America’s first Baptist college. Slavery was a pervasive institution in Rhode Island at the time. About one in eight of the colony’s population was enslaved. Shipowners and shopkeepers, merchants and manufacturers participated in the institution in myriad ways, most notably through distilling rum for slave ships bound for West Africa. As the steering committee report disclosed, some thirty members of the Corporation, the college’s governing board, owned or captained slave ships. The roster included John Brown, the school’s treasurer and a member of the university’s namesake family, and Cyprian Sterry, the school’s chancellor, whose Providence merchant house mounted some twenty West African slaving voyages. In such a context, the fact that Manning arrived in Rhode Island accompanied by a personal slave aroused little comment.
Undoubtedly devout and committed to setting the young men of the college on the path to righteousness, Manning left little evidence for posterity of opposition to the inhumane, illicit, and sadistic trade in human beings. Sitting before the portrait of this man, who could never have imagined a successor like me, inspired reflection on many things: on the course of my own life, on the life of institutions, and on the wrongs so easily done in conformity with one’s times.
Though over two centuries separated our tenures as president of Brown, Manning and I are very much part of the same continuum. My grandparents, though born free, bore the indelible marks of slavery’s legacy. Until her last days, my grandmother transported heavy loads on her head and dressed in long dresses reminiscent of the coarse clothing manufactured for the specific use of slaves. (As the steering committee report noted, much of the clothing worn by southern slaves was manufactured in Rhode Island mills, including several owned by Brown trustees and benefactors.) My parents continued the work of their parents, toiling in cotton fields for much of their lives for the enrichment of plantation owners. Born on a hillock overlooking those fields, I came along too late to be fully vested in the sharecropping system but soon enough to experience firsthand the long days that my parents and siblings spent dragging cotton sacks down the long, unforgiving rows, sunup to sundown. There was no overseer with whip in hand, to be sure, but low wages and brutal living conditions were an effective means of keeping poor farmers from escaping the system.
Historian Douglas Blackmon, in his book Slavery by Another Name, suggests that the era in which my grandparents lived is inappropriately named the Jim Crow era. Instead, he writes, “Let us define this period of American life plainly and comprehensively. It was the Age of Neoslavery. Only by acknowledging the full extent of slavery’s grip on U.S. society—its intimate connections to present-day wealth and power, the depth of its injury to millions of black Americans, the shocking nearness in time to its true end—can we reconcile the paradoxes of current American life.”3 The nearness of my own life to the true end of slavery holds me and obligates me. Would that one could simply set aside such realities and, turning to a new day, decree that all that is past shall never be revisited. But knowing and understanding our history is as vital to the improvement of our lives as nourishment is necessary to our physical survival. Furthermore, ignoring massive violations of human rights or minimizing their scope and cruelty can all too easily enable future atrocities. Hence, my belief in disclosing historical injustices as fully as possible, a belief that has been deepened by my experience at Brown. While focusing on blame is not productive, it is neither futile nor unimportant to acknowledge what took place and to consider how to create an environment in which similar injustices are less likely to recur.
Many complain that present-day efforts to judge the behavior and actions of those from a distant time are themselves unjust. This is certainly true to a degree. The decisions one makes for the benefit of so worthy an enterprise as a college are inevitably limited to the array of choices available at the time. But viewing past beliefs and actions through the lenses of what we believe and wish for ourselves today is both inescapable and, if done with care and humility, morally instructive, not least because of the way it compels us to imagine how successive generations may judge our beliefs and actions. Just as Manning and his cohort found ways to live comfortably with the injustices of their time, so are all of us capable of finding our way to similar compromises. Through the inspiration of his visage, I was better able to recognize the mandate to stand up to the injustices of my own times, no matter how commonplace or well accepted they might have become. I was also better able to recognize the close relationship between the predominating injustices of Manning’s era and those of my own, both of which rest on a fundamental denial of the dignity and equality of all human beings.
Sitting in the presence of President Manning was sometimes uncomfortable, but the discomfort taught me much about who I am and how much I can bear. It connected me in a much stronger way to those who placed me on my path through their suffering and their hope. And it helped me better understand my responsibilities to history and to those who come after me. The journey to these recognitions was longer than it should have been, but I would not finally have wanted it to be any different.
Let me close with a few observations about the legacy and lessons of the Slavery and Justice initiative for Brown and for universities generally. This is not an easy time for American universities, which face mounting public distrust of their mission, structures, and fairness. They are hardly alone. In the case of public and private institutions alike—government, churches, media companies, health care providers, public schools, police forces, financial institutions, the criminal justice system, corporations—a deep gulf has developed between institutions’ professed values and goals and the public perception of them. This skepticism bridges the normal divides of American politics: it is evident on the left as well as the right, among the religious as well as the agnostic, the young as well as the old. Indeed, while one can say that our nation is deeply divided in so many respects, it is unified in its mistrust of institutions.
The fact that universities are coming under widespread public attack in spite of the immense public good that they do is a product of many factors. But I believe that much of the problem reflects universities’ own failings, including our adoption of some of the worst habits of large organizations: elitism, predominating self-interest, failure to uphold our stated values, and a mystifying reluctance to stand up to entrenched power and question the status quo. If we truly believe that the Academy exists to promote human welfare and follow the path of truth, then our first task is confronting our own compromises and corruption.
In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that universities should exhibit self-righteousness or standoffish tendencies. Far from it. I believe that universities, as living communities of learning, should continually interrogate their own values. They should examine where they stand on the most difficult questions of our time. When they detect threats to fundamental values of freedom, equality, and justice, they have a duty to engage the debate and even to wage battle against practices that would divide, exclude, or constrain freedom of thought. Last but not least, universities must ensure the ability of community members, faculty, students, and staff to participate in the process of protest, which remains an all-important avenue for disclosing corruption, challenging oppression, and perfecting our union.
One practical way that universities can help to entrench these principles is by creating structures for broad, authentic, and inclusive university governance. Modern American university governance has changed significantly as a result of the activism of the 1960s; decisions once made in secret by small groups of individuals are now often the province of a wider array of campus bodies, many of them deliberately, if cautiously, representative. There is no doubt that this change has complicated and slowed decision making on many campuses. But what has been lost in speed and simplicity has been more than compensated for by an enlarged pool of experience, greater diversity of perspective, and community ownership of challenging issues. This broad participation is, I believe, one important means of protecting institutions from the significant moral and political lapses to which more insular groups can be prone. It is also consistent with bedrock principles of good scholarship, which insist on exposing presumed facts and findings to the scrutiny and criticism of others.
Finally and most importantly, universities must fiercely defend freedom of speech and thought. This is not an easy task today, when many on our campuses, including many of our students, dismiss appeals to free speech as a screen to license hate speech, preserve privilege, and placate those who disdain activist efforts. The first precipitant for appointment of the steering committee, recall, was an uproar over the boundaries of campus speech. I believed then and I continue to believe today that all members of a campus community should feel able to express their views, even views that strike others as heinous, hurtful, hateful, and misinformed. It should go without saying that protecting the right of some to challenge what they see as violations of basic human and civil rights also requires defending the right of those who would seek to justify or defend such practices. How can we have one without the other? We must teach our students the clarifying power of opposing views, even views that seem hollow or self-interested. The one thing we should not be questioning is the importance of free speech as the underpinning of our freedom, rights, and dignity.
These reflections have particular resonance today. In these perilous political times, when some seem bent on rolling back our hard-won freedoms, when demagogues and racists come to power with the support of substantial numbers of voters, when entire communities are harassed, demeaned, and threatened, what could be more precious than our right to dissent? And dissent we must, raising our resonant voices to challenge hateful and divisive rhetoric, denouncing exclusionary practices that threaten further to divide a nation already riven into segregated enclaves of thought and identity. In the midst of the political turmoil around us, there is no greater mission for a university than to disclose facts, confront untruths, and uphold traditions of democracy, openness, and inclusion. The legacy of excellence that so many universities represent is built not on lies and secrets but on truth telling, not on narrowness of thought but on the robust exchange of ideas. Efforts by universities and other organizations to disclose truthfully their historical origins are consistent with these values and are thus to be applauded.
Because of the work of the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, I have a fuller understanding of the historical legacy that I and other members of the Brown community inherited. That knowledge in no way compromises my esteem for the institution. To the contrary, I am immensely proud of the legacy of Brown, a legacy entangled with slavery but also defined by independence of thought and action, a respect for dissent, and a commitment to diversity. Perhaps most important, it is a legacy that affirms and confirms the human capacity to learn, change, and grow.
1. David Horowitz, “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Is a Bad Idea—and Racist Too,” Brown Daily Herald, March 13, 2001, 6.
2. Brenda Allen et al., Slavery and Justice: Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice (Providence, R.I.: Brown University, 2006), 45.
3. Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 402.