October 18, 2006
Slavery and Justice: Background on the Report
Not the Last Words, but the First Words in a Continuing Dialogue
Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons has received the report of the University’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice and has directed that it be made available on the University’s Web site to facilitate further public discussion. Background on the report follows here.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — In 2003, Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons appointed a Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice to investigate the University’s historical relationship to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. On Oct. 18, 2006, the committee formally transmitted its report to President Simmons, who ordered its immediate public release. The report is available in electronic form through the Brown home page, at www.brown.edu/slaveryjustice. A printed version will follow.
Released as a downloadable pdf file, the report is accompanied by a wide range of background materials providing information about the committee’s composition and charge, as well as a calendar of sponsored programs featuring video excerpts of dozens of presenters who appeared at Brown under the committee’s auspices. It also includes links to newly created scholarly resources, including curricular materials for teachers and a digital archive of historical documents, enabling readers to examine and evaluate the same materials that steering committee members consulted. Perhaps most remarkable, the Web site includes a complete reconstruction of the voyage of a single Rhode Island slave ship, the Sally, dispatched to Africa in 1764, the year of Brown’s founding, by members of the University’s namesake family. The Web site also includes facilities for interested readers to offer feedback on the committee’s efforts and to read the responses of others.
Like the appointment of the committee itself, the public release of the report and associated materials reflects Brown’s determination to face its complex past squarely, without fear or evasion. It also bespeaks a deep belief in universities as places in which even the most awkward and troubling subjects can be discussed in a spirit of openness, civility, and reasoned exchange. As President Simmons put it in a public statement in early 2004, “Understanding our history and suggesting how the full truth of that history can be incorporated into our common traditions will not be easy. But, then, it doesn’t have to be.”
The president’s charge to the steering committee had two dimensions. Its primary task was to examine the University’s historical entanglement with slavery and the slave trade and to report its findings openly and truthfully. But the committee was also asked to reflect on the meaning of this history in the present, on the complex historical, political, legal, and moral questions posed by any present-day confrontation with past injustice. In particular, the president asked the committee “to organize academic events and activities that might help the nation and the Brown community think deeply, seriously, and rigorously about the questions raised” by the national debate over reparations for slavery. Reparations, she noted, was a highly controversial subject, presenting “problems about which men and women of good will may ultimately disagree,” but it was also a subject on which Brown, in light of its own history, had “a special obligation and a special opportunity to provide thoughtful inquiry.” From the outset, the president stressed that the committee would not determine whether or how Brown might pay monetary reparations, nor did she ask it to try to forge a consensus on the reparations question. Its object, rather, was “to provide factual information and critical perspectives” to enable the University’s students and the nation as a whole to discuss the issue in more thoughtful and intellectually rigorous ways.
The steering committee hewed closely to the president’s charge. Members of the committee, assisted by other Brown faculty as well as by undergraduate and graduate student researchers, gathered information about the University’s past, drawing on both published sources and various historical archives. The committee also sponsored more than 30 public programs, including scholarly lectures, panel discussions, forums, film screenings, and two international conferences, one of which was co-sponsored with Yale University’s Gilder-Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. In all, the committee heard from more than 100 distinguished speakers, ranging from Professor John Hope Franklin, who discussed his tenure as chairman of One America, President Clinton’s short-lived national commission on race, to Beatrice Fernando, a slavery survivor from Sri Lanka, who spoke on the problem of human trafficking today. The committee also organized activities beyond the University’s gates, sponsoring programs in local libraries and schools, as well as workshops for local teachers. Working in conjunction with the Choices Programs of Brown’s Watson Institute for International Studies, members of the committee were able to produce a curriculum, Forgotten History: The Slave Trade and Slavery in New England, copies of which have been distributed to every high school history and social studies classroom in the state of Rhode Island.
The committee’s report contains three sections, reflecting the different elements of the president’s charge. The first focuses on history, exploring different aspects of the University’s relationship to slavery. This section reveals the complicity of many of the Brown’s founders and benefactors in slavery and the slave trade, and outlines some of the direct benefits that accrued to the University, then known as the College of Rhode Island. Yet it also explores the important contribution that other founders and benefactors made to the emerging anti-slavery movement. As the committee’s careful reconstruction shows, the escalating national struggle over the morality of slavery and slave trading split the campus community, including students, faculty, and the members of the Board of Trustees and Board of Fellows, the two bodies constituting the University’s governing Corporation. Some of the first prosecutions for illegal slave trading in American history were brought by members of the Corporation against other members. The battle was rejoined a generation later, with students and faculty debating the merits of abolition even as the burgeoning textile industry tied the fortunes of the University and the state more closely to southern slavery.
In her letter of appointment, President Simmons asked the steering committee to examine “comparative and historical contexts” that might illuminate Brown’s situation, as well as the broader challenges of “retrospective justice.” How have other institutions and societies dealt with the legacies of historical injustice, and what might we learn from their experience? A substantial majority of the committee’s sponsored programs pertained to this question, which is the focus of section two of the report. The report examines not only monetary reparations programs but also a range of other responses to gross injustice, including criminal prosecution (obviously not possible in the case of American slavery, an offense in which all the direct victims and perpetrators have died), institutional apologies, truth commissions, and the creation of public memorials. In keeping with the president’s charge, the object of the discussion is not to select the correct “answer” to the problem of historical injustice but rather to highlight questions, to illuminate the possibilities and pitfalls of different approaches, as well as some of the specific circumstances in which they have been or might be used.
The final section of the report turns to the slavery reparations debate in the United States, examining the contours of the current controversy as well as the issue’s deeper historical roots. The object, again, is not to resolve the controversy but to highlight questions and contexts that might deepen understanding and enrich debate. What actually happened when slavery was abolished, first in Northern states like Rhode Island, and later in the South? What legacies did slavery bequeath to the nation, and what attempts were made to redress those legacies? Were former slaves promised 40 acres and a mule after the Civil War? Do other recent reparations cases – payments to Japanese Americans interned during World War II or to survivors of the Nazi’s forced labor programs – represent precedents for slavery reparations? What is the current status of reparations litigation, and what are its long-terms prospects of success? The section includes extensive notes, elaborating particular issues and offering suggestions for further reading.
The report ends with a short conclusion, followed by a series of recommendation directed specifically at Brown University.
As the foregoing makes clear, the report of the steering committee was not written to be the last word on the subject, but rather to be the first words in a continuing dialogue on the Brown campus and in the nation as a whole. In coming months, the University will sponsor a series of public events, providing students and members of the general public with an opportunity to reflect on, respond to, and criticize the committee’s work. The first such event will be an open forum with members of the steering committee, to be held on Wednesday, Nov. 1, from 4 to 6 p.m. in the Salomon Center for Teaching, Room101. The event is free and open to the public.