'Corpses in the Quad'

October 19, 2006

A Brown University report released Wednesday on the institution's ties to the slave trade stops short of recommending an apology, and eschews the subject of personal monetary reparations. It focuses instead on memorials and social justice efforts meant to acknowledge and make amends for the past -- and, perhaps more importantly, offer a paradigm for other universities with spotty paths seeking to move forward.

“Everybody is going to look to what Brown did,” said Alfred L. Brophy, professor of law at the University of Alabama and author of the just-released book, Reparations: Pro and Con (Oxford University Press).

“Virtually every school south of the Mason-Dixon Line and some of the ones up north, obviously, have connections to the institution of slavery,” Brophy said. “Brown’s study gives moral authority to conduct these studies and will likely drive more of them.”

“Slavery and Justice,” a report by the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, examines the complicity of Brown’s founders and backers in slavery and the slave trade, and describes the benefits the university obtained from its tainted ties. Founded in 1764 as the College of Rhode Island, Brown has what Omer Bartov, a European history professor and member of the steering committee, called “skeletons in the closet, corpses in the quad.”

The report offers an in-depth discussion of Brown's connections to slavery, beginning with a description of the institution’s first president, the Rev. James Manning, arriving in Rhode Island with his own personal slave. University Hall, Brown’s oldest building, was built in part by slave labor. The first-ever endowment drive featured a sail down the coast to raise funds from slaveowners in South Carolina, and the institution’s wealthy benefactor and future namesake, the Brown family, participated in the slave trade, the family finally splitting over the issue in the late 18th century.

The report, completed by a commission of faculty members, students and administrators appointed by President Ruth J. Simmons in 2003, suggests a set of broad-based measures meant to redress the institution’s past. The committee does not propose reparations in the popular monetary sense of the term, but instead proposes efforts to both remember the past and make amends through various educational initiatives.

The recommendations to Simmons, who praised the committee in a letter Wednesday, include:

  • Creating a slave trade memorial and a day of remembrance on the campus.
  • Commissioning a new history of Brown to replace the current text, which barely mentions slavery or the slave trade.
  • Developing a center for continuing research on slavery and justice, which would include a full-time director, a new endowed professorship and fellowship opportunities.
  • More actively recruiting African-American students, along with students living in Africa and the West Indies. The long-term goal, the report states, would be to offer need-blind admissions to international students.
  • Working to improve Rhode Island’s K-12 educational system, both by enhancing Brown’s own teacher education program -- including by adding full tuition waivers for master’s candidates who commit to teaching for three years in local public schools -- and teaming with local teachers.

Commission members disagreed on the value and propriety of an institutional apology, but assert in the report that Brown's history at least should be acknowledged.

“Of course one can’t go back in history, but in what ways can we redress some of those legacies?” Bartov asked.

“I think that generally we agreed that the way to go is not by providing checks to descendents of slaves or potential descendents of slaves. I think that simply didn’t appear to us to be a useful recommendation for the university,” said Bartov, adding that the process of identifying potential beneficiaries would be nearly impossible in itself.

“I think we’re hoping that what we’ve done will be some kind of example of at least trying to come to terms with a past that has been by and large not confronted. And because we are a university, the one thing that we know or hope we know how to do is study, research and teach.”

Observers who track rights for historical wrongs say that the proposals advanced by Brown are typical of reparations as they are commonly understood within academe. While history offers a few isolated examples of personal monetary reparations -- for example, in the case of Japanese-Americans interned during World War II -- the term is commonly understood by scholars to refer to a broader approach of both memorializing the past and using a prior injustice as a springboard for the creation of a more just world.

“This is potentially setting up a model for one of the ways in which specific institutions like universities can begin to let the topic resurface and do some proactive things to begin to heal the divisions in society and the inequalities in society -- at least to the extent that they can do something within their arena,” said Roy Finkenbine, a professor of history and director of the Black Abolitionist Archives at the University of Detroit Mercy.

“We don’t even know the names of the slaves who labored in the West Indies to create the sugar that led to the great profits that the Bristol and Providence merchants made,” Brophy said. “We don’t know their names, but generations later, the great Brown University, built in part from the labor of these nameless people, is being used for a better purpose, for education, for the liberation of a people.”

“That’s what’s positive about this.”

In addition to the report, the steering committee is offering links to a variety of historical documents on its Web site and will hold a series of forums with those at Brown and the greater Providence area beginning November 1.

Brown’s president will respond to the report and its recommendations more fully in the coming weeks.

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