African American Students and Scholars at Brown: Activism, Impact, and Inspiration

Spencer Crew

The first students  of African descent to enter Brown University, George Washington Milford and Inman Page, did not matriculate until after the Civil War, graduating in 1877. African American students rarely numbered more than one or two per class until the 1960s when, influenced by the civil rights movement and federal affirmative action legislation, Brown began admitting increased numbers of African American students. By 1968, there were eighty-five African American undergraduate and graduate students at Brown, of which I was one. As the number of African American students expanded, we pressed Brown to improve the environment we encountered at the University. We wanted more welcoming classes, spaces, and ways of operating, and we challenged the University to think more deeply about how it treated African American students and positioned itself on matters of race and social justice.

Student discontent resulted in several protests pressuring the University to make changes. African American students, myself included, staged a walkout in 1968 to pressure the University to seek out and admit more African American students, add courses on African American topics, and hire professors qualified to examine African American issues. Another protest took place in 1975, when students occupied University Hall, again seeking additional Afro-centric course offerings and recruitment of more students of color. The aspirations of both protests were to make Brown more sensitive and equitable on matters of race. An important component of this was the addition of more administrators and faculty of color, whose presence and perspective might enrich the Brown experience for all students. Student activism did ultimately result in the hiring of more African American faculty and administrators, such as Walter E. Massey in physics and George H. Bass in theater arts. Some other significant results of student agitation were the creation of a Black Studies program, the dedication of a Third World Center [now the Brown Center for Students of Color], and a sizable increase in the number of African American and other students of color at Brown.

Brown’s gradual embrace of its growing diversity, and concomitant expansion of opportunity, had an enormous impact on students like myself. As a history major, it meant that courses in African American history were offered for the first time. Two then-graduate students, Rhett S. Jones and Wilson Jeremiah Moses, spearheaded these courses. Both serious scholars with a passion for their subjects, they were inspiring and demanding teachers. For me, they demonstrated that one should view history not as an abstract concept, but as a tool for analysis and critique of society both past and present. Jones and Moses, along with other history faculty, allowed me to pursue research papers focused on African American topics, an experience that inspired my decision to become a professor of history and a public historian.

The dawn of the twenty-first century brought even greater change with the 2001 appointment of Dr. Ruth J. Simmons as Brown’s eighteenth president, and the first African American Ivy League president. As a member of the search committee that selected Dr. Simmons, it was exciting and inspiring to see the committee coalesce around the selection of Dr. Simmons without hesitation — something none of us who participated in the 1968 walkout would have imagined happening at Brown. I was proud of the University and impressed by the qualifications Dr. Simmons brought to the position. She was a strategic and bold thinker who sought to challenge Brown to grow as an institution. With her mandate, the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice was formed. Despite the possible pitfalls of delving into Brown’s relationship with slavery, many of us connected with Brown felt it was crucial for an institution of higher learning to fully and critically examine its past.

One of Brown’s responses to the Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice was to commission a memorial to the enslaved men who helped construct University Hall, recognizing their contribution to Brown. The Commission on Memorials, of which I was a member, interviewed nationally and internationally respected artists, ultimately selecting the concept offered by National Medal of Arts recipient Martin Puryear. Puryear’s simple but impactful sculpture was installed on the Front Green, near University Hall, along the pathway followed by all Brown students during Convocation and Commencement. For those of us of African American lineage, its location represents an important recognition by Brown of the critical contribution of people of African descent to the University’s early history.

I also have been fortunate to join the advisory council for the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice (CSSJ) and to participate in some of its programming. The work of the Center has great appeal to me as a public scholar and museum professional. With the growing interest in social justice in society, it is important that the CSSJ’s work be made available for the general public. This research can provide not only historical perspective but also possible pathways toward addressing the challenges facing society.

The Slavery and Justice Report and its results represented an important milestone, reflecting Brown’s willingness to examine its past honestly and unflinchingly. There is still much work left to accomplish for Brown University and others concerned with social justice and equity; nevertheless, in many ways, this Report and the broader work of the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice are a legacy of both the enslaved people whose lives supported the University’s early growth and the subsequent African American students and faculty who worked at or attended Brown. As an African American alumnus and a scholar who has devoted my career to the advancement of public history, I am heartened to see Brown persist in its goals of openly confronting its history and pursuing social justice.

Spencer Crew, who earned his bachelor’s degree as a member of Brown’s Class of 1971, is the Robinson Professor of History at George Mason University. He serves as Chair of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice External Advisory Board.