By Eric Tucker, Associated Press Writer | October 18, 2006
PROVIDENCE, R.I. –A committee examining Brown University’s centuries-old ties to the slave trade issued a report Wednesday recommending the creation of a memorial and an academic center focused on research on slavery and justice.
"We cannot change the past," according to the 106-page report, released on the university’s Web site. "But an institution can hold itself accountable for the past, accepting its burdens and responsibilities along with its benefits and privileges."
In 2003, Brown President Ruth Simmons, the first black president of an Ivy League school and a descendant of slaves herself, appointed a committee of students, faculty and administrators to study the university’s ties to the slave trade and recommend how the college should take responsibility.
The 17-member committee says there’s no question that much of the money used to create Brown and ensure its early growth came either directly or indirectly from the slave trade.
As part of its research, the committee referenced construction records found in University Hall — the oldest building on campus — that mention slaves whose labor helped build it. The school’s first president, James Manning, owned a slave at one time. In addition, the committee says it identified roughly 30 members of the college’s governing corporation who at one time owned or captained slave ships.
Although the committee said Brown needs to help those disadvantaged by the legacy of the slave trade, it does not recommend creating scholarships specifically for African-American students. The report said the idea was logical, but would run counter to Brown’s current policy of offering scholarships based on need.
The report also makes no recommendation on whether or how Brown should make monetary reparations, which Simmons has maintained was never part of the committee’s responsibility.
The report strikes an academic tone, tracing the university’s centuries-old link to slave traders and calling slavery a "crime against humanity" that left an ugly legacy of discrimination and a wide gulf between rich and poor. It describes how Brown’s endowment benefited from slaveowners’ contributions and says the university is accepting responsibility for its "part in grievous crimes."
"If this nation is ever to have a serious dialogue about slavery, Jim Crow, and the bitter legacies they have bequeathed to us, then universities must provide the leadership," the report says.
Brown, the nation’s seventh oldest university, was formally chartered in 1764 as the College of Rhode Island. Its founder, the Rev. James Manning, freed his only slave but accepted donations from slave owners and traders, including the Brown family of Providence.
Nicholas Brown, a wealthy merchant, was listed in the school’s charter. His brother, John Brown, a slave trader, paid for half the cost of the college’s first library.
Simmons said in a letter to the Brown community on Wednesday that the committee would hold a series of public forums to discuss the report, with the first one scheduled for Nov. 1.
She also praised the university for a "remarkable history of truth seeking and progressive action."
"That this history presents itself in many facets does not surprise; that it gives us a window onto our own time and the opportunity to see how we might respond to current human rights issues is undeniable," Simmons wrote.
Randall Miller, a history professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia who has written about slavery, said the Brown report was part of a broader trend of universities and financial institutions critically self-examining their historic entanglements with slavery and the slave trade.
"There are various ways that institutions have grappled with this once it became a matter of public concern," Miller said.
Miller said the concept of a memorial made sense since members of the Brown community would be forced to encounter a physical reminder of slavery. But he said reparations were a trickier issue since critics say there’s no way to put a price tag on an injustice.
Miller said the report’s recommendations will not go far enough for some but could satisfy others.
The committee recommends a review of the university’s investment practices to ensure socially responsible investing.
In addition, it says the formal written history of Brown — which "makes virtually no reference to slavery or the slave trade" — should be replaced with a more truthful version.
The committee says a slave trade memorial should invite fresh reflection without bringing shame. It says a small brass plaque near the entrance of the John Brown House serves as the only physical marker around the campus of the university’s ties to slavery.
Committee Chairman James Campbell, an associate professor of American civilization and Africana studies, said the panel was responsible for examining slavery through the broader context of modern-day injustices.
"Our sense of what appropriate actions might be has been guided by our undertaking of what kind of institution Brown is and what it does best — which is to learn and to teach," Campbell said.
© Copyright 2006 Associated Press