Slavery and Justice at Brown — A Personal Reflection
In 1979, novelist Ralph Ellison came to Brown University to speak at a ceremony dedicating a portrait of Inman Page, one of the first two African American students to attend Brown. Born into slavery, Page did not inherit the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness promised in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. Graduating in 1877, just months after the final overthrow of Reconstruction, he was also denied the equal citizenship guaranteed by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. But he lived an estimable life, working as a teacher and community organizer and serving as president of newly established Black colleges in Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Tennessee.
Near the end of his career, Page worked as principal of Frederick Douglass High School in Oklahoma City, where his students included a young Ralph Ellison. Ellison used the portrait dedication ceremony at Brown to share some funny stories, but also to reflect on the stories that Americans elect not to tell, what he called “unwritten history.”
“Thus in the underground of our unwritten history, much of that which is ignored defies our inattention by continuing to grow and have consequences….Perhaps if we learned more of what has happened and why it happened, we will learn more of who we really are, and perhaps if we learn more about our unwritten history, we won’t be so vulnerable to the capriciousness of events as we are today….Such individuals as Dr. Page…worked, it seems to me, to such an end. Ultimately, theirs was an act of faith: faith in themselves, faith in the potentialities of their own people, and despite their social status as Negroes, faith in the potentialities of the democratic ideal. Coming so soon after the betrayal of the Reconstruction, theirs was a heroic effort. It is my good fortune that their heroism became my heritage, and thanks to Inman Page and Brown University it is also now a part of the heritage of all Americans who would become conscious of who they are.”1
I drew many lessons from my tenure as chair of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, but as I reflect on the experience today, more than fifteen years later, what I keep coming back to is the portrait of Inman Page, which I “discovered” while working on the Committee. I don’t know how many times I had walked past it over the years, hanging in the John Hay Library, but I had somehow never really seen it — which is precisely the point that Ellison was making. Our histories, both individual and collective, are a collection of many stories, some of which we remember and celebrate, some of which we contrive to deny, extenuate, and forget. The Report that the Committee produced, now released in a new edition, recounts some of the latter stories. It represents, in Ellison’s terms, an excavation of “the underground of our unwritten history.”
Given all that has happened in our society in recent years, I am more persuaded than ever of the importance of these kinds of excavations, however painful they may sometimes be. This does not mean — as some critics nowadays allege — that I and like-minded academics are only interested in the darkness. To the contrary, I count my time on the Slavery and Justice Committee as one of the most hopeful experiences of my professional life. Institutions, like nations, are profoundly shaped by the values and beliefs of their founders, but they are not eternally bound by them. They change and grow, in sometimes surprising ways. This, too, is what Ellison was trying to tell us. The men who founded the College of Rhode Island, what is today Brown University, could scarcely have imagined that a student like Inman Page would one day grace the campus, much less the ways in which what he learned at Brown would ripple out into the world of freedpeople in the post-Emancipation South. Still less could they have imagined an African American woman, herself a descendant of enslaved people, becoming the University’s eighteenth president and commissioning a report like the one that follows.
Doubtless the Brown of the future will exceed our imagining as well. The students, faculty, and administrators who live and learn there will inhabit a different universe of possibility than ours. They will value things that we neglect and disdain things that we consider precious. They will turn a condescending eye on us, lamenting our blinkered moral imaginations, decrying our comfortable acquiescence to systems of gross injustice. More power to them.
So the next time you find yourself passing through the John Hay Library, please take time to look — really look — at the portrait of Inman Page. If the life of Inman Page represents one of the most inspirational chapters in Brown’s history, the episode that triggered the appointment of the Slavery and Justice Committee was one of the most dispiriting. It occurred early in 2001, a moment curiously like our own, two decades later: rife with political partisanship, reeling from a disputed presidential election, and consumed by a rancorous national debate over race. The chief focus of the 2001 debate was not police violence, the issue that fuels today’s Black Lives Matter movement, nor voter suppression, now experiencing a gruesome revival, but rather slavery reparations — the idea that African Americans were entitled to some form of compensation or redress in light of their ancestors’ 246 years of uncompensated toil.
Reparations was not, in fact, a new idea in 2001 — section three of the Slavery and Justice Report provides a history of the centuries-long reparations debate — but the question had acquired renewed salience in the context of a series of class-action lawsuits seeking damages from corporations alleged to have profited from slavery and slave-related enterprises. Among the institutions in the crosshairs were Brown, Harvard, and Yale, all of which were publicly identified by reparations advocates as “probable targets” of litigation.
In the event, Brown was not sued, and such lawsuits as were filed were quickly dismissed in federal court. (This history, too, is discussed in the Report.) But if reparations claims fizzled in courts of law, they exploded in the court of public opinion, setting off an acrimonious, racially charged national debate. Indeed, contemporary public opinion polls reported that reparations was the single most racially divisive issue ever surveyed.2 While roughly half of African American respondents expressed broad support for the idea — responses varied depending on how the question was phrased — a whopping 95% of white respondents expressed opposition, often violently. Try to imagine any other issue on which 95% of white Americans agree.
At this precise political moment, a paid political advertisement appeared in the Brown Daily Herald and several other college student newspapers. Headlined “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea — and Racist Too,” the ad was the work of a right-wing political activist named David Horowitz. As the title suggests, the ad offered a catalogue of critiques of the idea of reparations, some of which were quite inflammatory: Black people had benefited from enslavement, which spared them a life of African poverty; reparations had already been paid “in the form of welfare benefits and racial preferences”; whatever “adversity” Black Americans faced was “the result of failures of individual character rather than the lingering after-effects” of slavery or “racial discrimination”; the real “debt” was the one that Black people owed to the courageous “white Christians” who had freed them, and so forth.
It does no disservice to Mr. Horowitz, who has had a long and distinguished career as a political provocateur, to suggest that the advertisement was designed to provoke a reaction. If so, he hit the jackpot at Brown, where a small group of offended students demanded that the Herald rescind the ad and relinquish the money it had accepted to run it. When the student editors refused, the group pledged to prevent the newspaper from circulating until its demands were met. Whether or not one can steal something that is free is an interesting legal question, but the next morning, protesters converged on the Herald’s distribution sites and made off with the entire day’s press run. Some posed for pictures, proudly holding the papers aloft.
Whatever sense of triumph the protesters felt proved short-lived. The “theft” became front-page national news. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, even the Times of London all carried stories, as did FOX News, CNN, and MSNBC. I remember those stories, as well as the withering editorial commentary that accompanied them, depicting Brown as a school whose students were so coddled, illiberal, and intolerant that their only response to ideas that challenged their own was to smash the presses. I also remember the obscene, racist phone calls that flooded the office of Brown’s Program in Afro-American Studies (now the Department of Africana Studies), where I was then teaching, as if those of us invested in understanding African American experiences must somehow be to blame. It was a truly dispiriting episode.
By significant coincidence, Brown had, a short time before, announced the appointment of a new president, Ruth J. Simmons, who on her accession a few months later would become the first African American to lead an Ivy League university. Given the circumstances — the divisiveness of the reparations issue, the likelihood of litigation, and her own conspicuousness as a descendant of enslaved people heading a historically white university, not to mention the raw emotions left from the recent campus controversy — one might have expected Simmons to give the whole business a wide berth. She chose the opposite course. In her first Convocation address, delivered to the entering class in the fall of 2001, Simmons addressed the seizure of the papers directly. “I won’t ask you to embrace someone who offends your humanity through the exercise of free speech,” she told students, “but I would ask you to understand that the price of your own freedom is permitting the expression of such opinions. We will not stop hoping that men and women will rise above gratuitously specious utterances, but even if they do not, we must fight with all the force within us to preserve their right to be heard even as we work hard to expose the error of their logic.” Pointing to the Van Wickle Gates, through which the entering class had just ceremonially processed, she added, “If you come to this place for comfort, I would urge you to walk to yon iron gate, pass through the portal and never look back. But if you seek betterment for yourself, for your community and posterity, stay and fight.”3
Simmons followed the speech with an even more extraordinary action, appointing a University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. The Committee was charged not only to investigate and publicly disclose Brown’s historical relationship to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, but also to organize public programs that might help members of the Brown community — and the nation as a whole — to think in reasoned, rigorous ways about the complex legal, historical, ethical, and moral questions raised by the raging national debate over slavery reparations. Reparations, Simmons acknowledged, was an extremely controversial subject, on which people “of good will may ultimately disagree,” but it was also a subject on which Brown had “a special obligation and a special opportunity to provide thoughtful inquiry.” “Understanding our history and suggesting how the full truth of that history can be incorporated into our common traditions will not be easy,” she noted in the statement announcing the Committee’s appointment. “But, then, it doesn’t have to be.”4
Simmons’ reference to Brown’s “special opportunity and obligation” requires a bit of explanation. Most Americans today, when they hear the word “slavery,” imagine an institution sharply bounded in space and time — an “Old South” world of porticoed plantation homes and snow-white cotton fields, destined to disappear in the forward march of human progress. But slavery flourished across the New World, and it lasted for a very, very long time — almost four centuries. In the case of mainland North America, what became the United States, the institution of slavery existed for 246 years, which is, by way of comparison, one year longer than the interval between the nation declaring its independence in 1776, and 2021, when I write these words. Slavery thrived in all thirteen British mainland North American colonies and it existed, at least for a time, in all thirteen original states. About one in four residents of New York City was enslaved at the moment of independence, and it would take another half century, until 1827, for New York to abolish the institution completely. The last enslaved African Americans in New Jersey only became free in December 1865, with the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment.
In Rhode Island, too, slavery was a ubiquitous feature of daily life. Close to one in ten Rhode Islanders — more in the city of Providence — was enslaved at the time of the College’s founding. James Manning, the school’s first president, brought an enslaved person with him when he took up the job. Rhode Islanders’ real distinction, however, was in slave trading. Of those African slaving voyages launched from North American ports, more than half sailed from tiny Rhode Island — more than a thousand voyages, bearing more than 100,000 Africans into enslavement in the New World. Some were carried back to Rhode Island, but most were borne to the sugar-producing colonies of the West Indies, where their average life expectancy was something less than seven years. Much of the wealth of New England — and much of the wealth that endowed what is today Brown University — can be traced, directly and indirectly, to this commerce. I do not think that President Simmons knew all of these facts when she appointed the Committee, but she knew enough to understand that the story of Brown’s origins was more complicated than the cheery version presented in prior University histories. She also understood that this forgotten story — this “unwritten history” — had something important to tell our students and the nation.
I would like to be able to tell you that the announcement of the Slavery and Justice Committee’s appointment was greeted with broad approval or at least with open minds, but that would not be true. Responses in the press ranged from bemused to aghast. The Providence Journal greeted the news with an opinion piece by a nationally syndicated columnist titled “Simmons’ Hypocritical Race Hustling,” which claimed, without attribution and certainly without truth, that President Simmons had ordered the Committee to disburse Brown’s endowment as reparations checks in order to advance her political career.5 Mercifully, Twitter had not yet been invented, but email had, and the Committee’s inbox was soon overflowing. Some of those who wrote, including a number of Brown students and alumni, were encouraging and proud, but most were hostile and derisive. “You disgust me, as you disgust many other Americans,” one correspondent wrote. “Slavery was wrong, but at that time it was a legal enterprise. It ended, case closed. You cite slavery’s effects as being the reason that black people are so far behind, but that just illustrates your ignorance. Black people, here and now, are behind because some can’t keep their hands off drugs, or guns, or can’t move forward, can’t get off welfare, can’t do the simple things to improve their life….They don’t deserve money, they deserve a boot in the backside over and over until they can find their own way….Can your ignorant research, and can Ruth Simmons too.”
Fortunately, people who rush to judgment also tend to have short attention spans. The media storm abated and the Committee, which included faculty, students, and administrators, was able to go about its work. Over the next two years, we convened some thirty public programs, including lectures, panels, town hall meetings, and two international conferences, one co-sponsored with Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. In keeping with the charge from President Simmons, we cast our net broadly, looking not only at the American case but also at the experiences of other societies struggling to come to terms with grievous historical injustices. We learned about the Nuremberg Tribunal and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission; about Australia’s “Stolen Generation” (Aboriginal children taken from their parents as parts of a government campaign of forced racial assimilation); and Korea’s so-called “comfort women” (women compelled to labor in brothels operated by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II). We organized sessions about the history and politics of the slavery reparations movement, attending to the arguments of proponents and opponents alike, but we also explored the possibilities and potential pitfalls of other forms of historical redress, including national and institutional apologies, truth commissions, and the erection (or removal) of monuments and memorials. In one of our final programs, we heard from a survivor of modern-day slavery, a sobering reminder that the scourge of human trafficking is not simply a “historical” problem.
The public programs were only one prong of the Committee’s work. Members also conducted historical research, exploring a variety of on- and off-campus archives, aided by an able team of undergraduate researchers. As someone whose own research focused on slavery and its legacies, I began with a better understanding than most of the scale and scope of American slavery, but some of what we found left me stunned. I knew that many prominent Rhode Island families were implicated in the slave trade, including the Brown family, for whom the College of Rhode Island was renamed in 1803, but I did not know that the institution’s early governing body, now known as the Corporation of Brown University, had counted among its members thirty men who owned or captained slave ships. Nor did I know that the streets of Newport were first paved with a duty on imported slaves; that Rhode Island was home to dozens of distilleries, which churned out the high-proof rum that was slavers’ stock-in-trade on the West African coast; that the barrels in which sugar, molasses, and rum were shipped were fashioned by local coopers and ironsmiths; that enslaved Jamaicans subsisted on salted cod harvested by Rhode Island fishermen; that the sugar mills on West Indian plantations were turned by Narragansett ponies; that the spermaceti candles with which plantation owners illuminated their homes were manufactured in Providence. The portrait that emerged, shared in the first section of the Slavery and Justice Report, was not of a few evil men enriching themselves on slavery, but of an entire economy organized around enslavement. As one historian hosted by the Committee put it, slavery in New England was literally the business of “the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker.”6
Looking back across the years, several episodes stand out in my memory. Perhaps the most vivid is the one with which the Committee began its Report — our belated realization that the beautiful antique grandfather clock standing in the room in which we were meeting was a bequest of the family of Admiral Esek Hopkins. Brother of Governor Stephen Hopkins, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Esek Hopkins served not only as first commander in chief of the United States Navy but also as a member of Brown’s early governing body. He also served as captain of the slave ship Sally, a 100-ton brigantine dispatched by the Brown brothers to West Africa in 1764, the year of the College’s founding. The voyage of the Sally, horrific even by the standards of a murderous trade, is discussed in detail in the Slavery and Justice Report, so I will say no more about it here. But spare a thought for the clock, which not only offers a striking example of history hiding in plain sight but also encapsulates the fundamental questions the Committee faced. As we put it in the introduction to the Report: “How are we, as members of the Brown community, as Rhode Islanders, and as citizens and residents of the United States, to make sense of our complex history? How do we reconcile those elements of our past that are gracious and honorable with those that provoke grief and horror? What responsibilities, if any, rest upon us in the present as inheritors of this mixed legacy?”
By the time the Slavery and Justice Committee issued its Report in 2006, several other universities had launched investigations into their own historical relationships with slavery and the slave trade. Many more have followed since. As of this writing, nearly 100 universities in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain have trod the path that Brown blazed. In the United States alone, the roster includes Columbia, Emory, Georgetown, Harvard, Princeton, Rutgers, the University of Maryland, the University of North Carolina, the University of Virginia, William and Mary, and Yale, to name only a few. I think it is fair to say that we have reached an inflection point, in which the idea of a university telling the truth about its past does not seem controversial at all but rather a basic institutional obligation. The question now, as Brown releases this new, enriched edition of the Slavery and Justice Report, is what do we do with this new historical openness? How do we move from acknowledgment to action, from the discovery and disclosure of dark pasts to the task of building a more just and inclusive present and future? Our real work is just beginning.
is the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in U.S. History at Stanford University. Formerly a Professor of American Civilization, Africana Studies, and History at Brown, he chaired the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice.