Fifteen years have passed since Brown released its groundbreaking Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice and, in doing so, confronted and publicly documented the University’s complex and painful history with the transatlantic slave trade and its terrible legacies of inequity and injustice. The Report, which was commissioned under the thoughtful leadership of President Ruth J. Simmons, set a high standard for rigorous, unflinching analysis and became a model of responsible scholarship that helped to spark a national conversation, as Brown was among the first institutions of higher education in the United States to publicly catalogue its ties to slavery.
At the same time, the Report established the importance within the Brown community of continued inward examination and ongoing accountability for the profound consequences of slavery, including systemic racism and economic inequality. These values have formed the basis for the concrete actions the University has taken so far, as well as our ongoing commitment, to create a more diverse and inclusive academic community and to ensure that members of historically underrepresented groups can thrive and fulfill their full potential as scholars and as leaders at Brown.
As the president of a university that has engaged as a community in the difficult ongoing work of confronting the scars and open wounds left by slavery, commissioning this revised and expanded edition of the Slavery and Justice Report was important. I believe that institutions of higher education have a responsibility to continuously re-evaluate their progress toward full equity. Based upon the current state of our country’s — and the world’s — confrontation of systemic racism, we know that the commitment to equity is a perpetual march — one that will perhaps never be complete. The fact that we, as a university, have a precedent of commitment to this work, is not in and of itself enough to meet our obligation to help create a more fair and just society. Rather, it is imperative that our entire community internalizes and bears responsibility for the constant work we must do to reaffirm our commitment to the fight for racial justice.
The nation and the world of 2021 are different in many ways from the moment of the original Slavery and Justice Report’s release in 2006. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color and exposed persisting inequities in health care. The horrific killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and far too many others at the hands of police have spurred a long-overdue reckoning with the terrible legacies of anti-Black racism and anti-Black violence. Troubling voter suppression efforts have emerged across the United States, threatening to restrict access to the ballot box in communities of color. Meanwhile, Black people continue to be harmed by persistent disparities in access to medical care, wealth, employment, housing, education, wages, and food security.
It is through the lens of these complex issues, inextricably intertwined with the legacies of slavery, that we revisit the Slavery and Justice Report. American society in the twenty-first century demands that institutions of higher education continue to evolve and respond to the complex world in which we live as we interpret our past. It is for these reasons that we are publishing this second edition of the Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. This edition does not replace the original Report: it expands upon it with new perspectives from faculty, staff, and alumni that — with the benefit of fifteen years to understand and reflect upon the Report’s context beyond what was possible in the difficult moments of its origins — offer new insights on the document’s persistent and evolving impact, both on campus and across the nation and the world.
In this edition, you’ll read an interview with President Emerita Ruth J. Simmons, who comments on her motivations for beginning the University’s examination of its history and offers her reflections on the enduring legacy of the Report. You’ll learn from faculty, including Anthony Bogues, director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, how the CSSJ, which was born directly out of the Report, has become a catalytic entity for public discourse on the historical significance and legacies of slavery. And you’ll read reflections from several alumni on the history of Black students at Brown and the impact the Report had on their experiences both as students and, later, professionals.
One of the most physically prominent outcomes of the Report is Slavery Memorial by Martin Puryear, which stands outside University Hall on the Front Green, also known as the Quiet Green. The full impact of this memorial and how it is experienced on Brown’s campus is detailed in this volume by Provost Visiting Professor of Africana Studies Renée Ater. At its dedication in 2014, I noted that the memorial was placed in such a prominent space on our campus because we know that a polite remembrance is not enough: as a community, we have an obligation to weave the act of remembrance into the daily rhythm of the University and, thus, into all of the work that we do.
An institution’s reckoning with slavery does not end with the completion of a report. In many ways, the Slavery and Justice Report marked a new beginning in our commitment to create a more fully diverse and inclusive campus. In the years since the Report was released, Brown has fulfilled many of its recommendations, including the ongoing commitment to recruiting and retaining a diverse faculty, the establishment of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, the permanent endowment of the Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence, and other actions.
The University also has moved beyond the recommendations themselves in embracing a new standard for examining our past with a foundation in accountability. This can be seen in the 2016 publication of Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion: An Action Plan for Brown University (known as the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, or DIAP), and the subsequent DIAP Phase II, which was released in April 2021. As Brown’s former Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity, Shontay Delalue, explains in her essay, through the DIAPs, which were developed through extensive community engagement, the University has created a roadmap for meaningful transformation of culture and practices at Brown that have led to the exclusion of peoples from historically underrepresented groups in higher education. Further, the DIAPs recognize this work as integral to achieving the highest levels of academic excellence, and require the active participation of all members of the community.
In addition, the impact of Brown’s work continues to be felt well beyond Providence and Rhode Island. James T. Campbell, currently the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in U.S. history at Stanford University, who served as chair of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice while a professor at Brown, recounts in his contribution to this volume that Brown’s investigation of its history was immediately met with controversy, with some critics furiously asserting that, while slavery was wrong, it had ended — “case closed.” Yet, as Marcia Chatelain, a Brown alumna and Professor of History and African American Studies at Georgetown University, notes in her essay, the actions Brown took in confronting its past ultimately set an international example and have served as a guide for dozens of other institutions of higher education to also engage in this work and to recognize that our past is always with us. Professor Chatelain conveys in her recounting of the process Georgetown University undertook to address its ties to slavery that such an undertaking would never have been considered were it not for Brown’s leadership. This reflects the Report’s ongoing contributions to historical scholarship on racial slavery in the Americas, and its place as a global model as other colleges and universities address their own historical entanglement with slavery, the slave trade, and their deep legacies.
As part of our original charge both to “tell the truth in all its complexity” and to share that knowledge widely, we are releasing this expanded edition of the Slavery and Justice Report in multiple formats to reach the broadest possible audience for the greatest possible ongoing impact. As a complement to the print edition, the Brown Library’s Digital Publications Initiative has produced a digital edition that provides a fully immersive, interactive experience for readers seeking a deeper engagement with the historical sources. The Library has also developed a “teaching edition” for the College’s First Readings program for incoming undergraduates, enabling us to make it a regular offering in students’ orientation to Brown. Featuring an expanded set of historical documents, an array of supplemental resources, and robust annotation and sharing tools, this version makes the Report accessible to every student, faculty member, and staff member as a shared community experience. Through these efforts to circulate the Report widely on campus, in Rhode Island, and around the world, we demonstrate that we are a university that will not allow ourselves to fall victim to what the Report describes as the “inevitable tendencies to deny, extenuate, and forget.” It is through these efforts that the work of the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice continues to live on in real and lasting ways for future generations.
The creation of the second edition of this Report recognizes the importance of the habit of remembrance — the repeated act of recalling the failures of our past — to inform our future. What Brown has achieved through its actions and initiatives in the fifteen years since the Slavery and Justice Report was first published is to take real and concrete steps to continue the important work of creating a more fully inclusive and equitable campus; expand understanding about the impact of systemic racism and racial slavery, with the goal of helping to build a more just and equitable society; and catalyze critical conversations and change as the nation confronts anti-Black racism and other pervasive injustices. When institutions of higher education are confronted with difficult issues — whether they are social, political, economic, or ideological — we address them through scholarship. While some may argue that studying an issue does not have a lasting impact, the Slavery and Justice Report demonstrates that the route through scholarship, when shepherded thoughtfully, does lead to meaningful change.