Radical Promises

Sean Siperstein

The achievement, and the ongoing challenge, of the landmark Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice lies in its radical promise. Rather than continuing to allow critical, foundational history to remain “hidden in plain sight,” as President Ruth J. Simmons aptly described it, the University chose to face it head-on and, moreover, to embrace the work of repair as ongoing and requiring deeper effort than just one committee’s work.1 In that sense, President Simmons’ charge to the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice opened the door to something radical, in the sense that civil rights organizer Ella Baker defined it: “I use the term radical in its original meaning — getting down to and understanding the root cause,”2 in order to point the way toward a truly meaningful and democratic society. That particular radicalism certainly spoke to me as a student of history who had come to Brown precisely because I believed it was the kind of place where (unlike my fairly homogenous white, residentially segregated, suburban upbringing on Long Island) this sort of bold and necessary conversation took center stage — with all of its attendant passions, perils, and, ultimately, promise.

In the spring of 2004, I was one of twenty or so students to sign up for the Undergraduate Group Research Project being commissioned that fall by the Committee. Under the guidance of Professor James Campbell and Professor Seth Rockman, we grappled weekly with readings like Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family, viewed primary sources at the John Carter Brown Library and the John Hay Library, and engaged with the Committee’s public speakers (having lunch with legendary historian John Hope Franklin was a particular highlight). Everyone had some involvement in creating a museum exhibit about the voyage of the slave ship Sally, with a subset of the group taking the lead. My classmates studied topics like memorialization, truth and reconciliation, the Black experience at Brown, and the University’s historical relationship to the disenfranchisement of Black citizens in Rhode Island.3 My own project, along with four others, involved examining retrospective justice and accountability in light of contemporary efforts to prosecute those responsible for the murders of activists involved in the Mississippi Freedom Movement of the 1960s.

Our group also felt moved to do something we hadn’t been charged with: we delivered our own recommendations to the Committee about what its forthcoming recommendations to the University should entail. As we noted at the time, “Taking the legacies of Slavery and contemporary aspirations for Justice to their logical conclusions, we quickly realized that the scope of our enterprise extended over four centuries and stretched from historical analysis to present-day policy prescriptions. …It is impossible to separate our study of the historical relationship between Brown University and slavery from our obligation to confront the complex legacy of slavery in this country, and Brown’s role in perpetuating, challenging, or accepting that legacy.”4 Many of our suggestions overlapped with the Committee’s ultimate recommendations, such as the creation of an academic center, commissioning an on-campus memorial, and a material commitment to Providence public schools. Several were more specific, such as strengthening what was then called the Third World Center (now the Brown Center for Students of Color) and Black student representation at the University, and some went beyond the Report’s ultimate scope, such as ensuring a living wage for all Brown employees and Brown taking an institutional stance against voter disenfranchisement in Rhode Island.

It is that history of clear-eyed engagement with the deeper implications of the Report, and the profound impact that the Committee’s work might have over time, that I still take away each time I revisit it, which motivates my involvement with its living legacy, the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice (CSSJ). I currently co-chair the Friends of CSSJ, a group of alumni that supports the Center by highlighting its research and public humanities work to the global Brown alumni community, and working to expand its network of supporters. Through my involvement with the CSSJ and with the Friends, I’ve found, as an alumni leader, what I most cherished as a student: a community dedicated to advancing the work of accurately telling the story of America while connecting it to contemporary struggles for justice. In 2020, as the nation grappled with a pandemic that laid bare some of the inequality that traces its roots to slavery, alongside uprisings for racial justice, that work became all the more vital.

In the spring of 2005, I visited the John Brown House near campus, and brought up the namesake’s legacy as someone who unapologetically traded in human beings. This subject, which had not been raised on the tour or in exhibits, made the tour guide visibly uncomfortable. A dozen years later, while attending a CSSJ program on campus, I learned that my classmates’ exhibit on the Sally had ultimately come to reside at the John Brown House. Such is the potential of this Report and the process it unlocked. It calls on us to continue that active reckoning and the work of repair, as a University community, as a nation, and as a global community.

Sean Siperstein, who earned his bachelor’s degree as a member of Brown’s Class of 2005, is a litigation attorney and project manager in Washington, DC.