Blueprints and Pathways
Eighteen years ago, President Ruth J. Simmons appointed the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice to unmask the University’s relationship with the transatlantic slave trade. The ensuing Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice is now a landmark text for higher education institutions across the country working to uncover their own ties to slavery. The Report was influential during my time as a master’s student in the Public Humanities program at Brown, and it continues to serve as a blueprint that influences my praxis as a cultural heritage worker. The Report’s rigor, intention, and fearlessness with respect to the University’s long-shrouded entanglement with the transatlantic slave trade has inspired me to continue asking difficult questions and seek out work that centers the histories, legacies, and heritage of historically marginalized communities.
I believe the Report’s most important work is in naming the enslaved individuals whose labor was stolen to build the University. By naming these individuals whenever possible, the Report encourages us to think more holistically about their lived experiences and provides suggestions for active steps toward reconciliation.
One of my first tasks as a Fellow for the Public History of Slavery at the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice (CSSJ) was giving Slavery and Legacy Walking Tours, a CSSJ initiative that is based on the Report’s findings. University Hall, the campus’ first and oldest building, is the third stop on the tour. Here, I invited participants to take a moment in front of a ledger bearing the name of at least one enslaved African person who constructed the building. I encouraged visitors to pause and look at Pero’s name while considering his lived reality. What does it mean for someone to construct the foundation of an Ivy League institution, but not be able to take advantage of it? What does it mean now that Pero’s name is in this building, but his descendants remain unaware of his centrality to its creation? The Slavery and Justice Report encouraged me to think deeply about these questions, and my time at the CSSJ allowed me to practice engaging the public in their subsequent discourses.
During the final year of my master’s program, I completed a capstone project titled Entangled Legacies, a zine that asked four local artists to consider their own artistic practices in relation to Black American and Native American histories.1 I was inspired to undertake this project not only by my own lack of awareness regarding Native American histories in and around Rhode Island, but also the Report’s move toward retrospective justice — and action — through the series of recommendations it offers the University. Although not all of the suggestions have yet been accomplished, they push the Report from being a blueprint outlining a gap in the University’s public record to offering a pathway toward actively acknowledging and accepting our complex and often unsettling history. With this pathway in sight, and my work at the CSSJ as a foundation, I remain vigilant in my pursuit of work that is conscientious and dedicated to bringing marginalized histories to the public.