In 2003, Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons appointed a Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. Composed of faculty, administrators, and students, the Committee was asked to investigate the University’s historical relationship to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. The Committee was also asked to organize public programs that might help Brown students and interested members of the public to reflect on the meaning of this history in the present, on the complex historical, political, legal, and moral questions posed by any present-day confrontation with historical injustice.

The Steering Committee delivered its final Report in October 2006. Following a period of discussion and public comment, President Simmons and the Brown Corporation, the governing body of the University, issued a formal response in February 2007, outlining specific steps the University would take in light of the Committee’s findings.

The Report that follows includes three sections, followed by a conclusion and recommendations.

Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Brown University

Section One details the Committee’s historical findings. Although most Americans today think of slavery as a Southern phenomenon, the institution existed in all thirteen mainland colonies, including Rhode Island, where about ten percent of the population in the mid-eighteenth century was enslaved. Rhode Islanders also played a leading role in the transatlantic slave trade, mounting more than one thousand African slaving voyages in the century before the abolition of the trade in 1807. In all, more than one-hundred thousand enslaved Africans were carried to the Americas on Rhode Island ships, the majority of them to the sugar-producing colonies of the Caribbean.

Slavery and the slave trade shaped the early history of the College of Rhode Island, what is today Brown University, in numerous ways. The Steering Committee was able to identify approximately thirty members of the College Corporation, the school’s governing body, who owned or captained slave ships. Slave owners and slave traders were prominent among the College’s early donors, and at least four enslaved laborers contributed to the construction of the College Edifice, which is today called University Hall. Yet Brown also proved to be an important wellspring of the anti-slavery movement. Members of the College Corporation helped to enact some of the first state and federal laws against slavery and slave trading and pressed for the prosecution of those who violated them — including, in some cases, other Corporation members. The dispute split the College’s namesake family. The first individual charged in U.S. federal court for illegal slave trading was John Brown, the College’s long-time treasurer, who was prosecuted at the behest of the Providence Abolition Society, an organization founded be his younger brother, Moses. The issue also divided students, who argued the merits of slavery and abolition in classrooms, Commencement orations, and debating societies. As the Report’s detailed historical reconstruction shows, we are not the first generation to debate Brown’s relationship to slavery or to debate our own responsibilities in light of it.

Confronting Historical Injustice: Comparative Perspectives

In her letter charging the Steering Committee, President Simmons suggested a careful examination of “comparative and historical contexts” that might illuminate Brown’s situation, as well as the broader problem of “retrospective justice.” How have other institutions and societies around the world dealt with historical injustice and its legacies, and what might we learn from their experience? A substantial majority of the Committee’s public programs pertained to this aspect of its charge, which is the subject of the second section of the Report.

The section recounts humankind’s long and continuing struggle to define, deter, and alleviate the effects of “crimes against humanity,” a concept conceived in the eighteenth century and formally codified in international law in the twentieth century. Crimes against humanity include not only slavery and slave trading but also genocide, “ethnic cleansing,” mass rape, and other forms of gross injustice. One of the signature developments of the post-World War II era, and of the last twenty years in particular, has been the emergence of an international consensus on the importance of confronting such crimes, as well as the development of a variety of mechanisms for doing so. These mechanisms include not only monetary reparations (the focus of most discussions of the subject in the United States today) but also truth commissions, national and international apologies, the creation of public memorials and days of remembrance, educational initiatives, and a wide variety of other non-monetary reparative programs. The Report examines the possibilities and potential pitfalls of all of these approaches, as well as some of the specific circumstances in which they have been or might be used. It also examines the experiences of societies that have, for one reason or another, declined to confront atrocious pasts. The section includes extensive notes for readers interested in pursuing particular cases or issues in greater detail.

Confronting Slavery’s Legacy: The Reparations Question

President Simmons specifically asked the Steering Committee “to organize academic events and activities that might help the nation and the Brown community think deeply, seriously, and rigorously about the questions raised by the national debate over reparations for slavery.” Reparations, she noted, was a highly controversial subject “about which men and women of good will may ultimately disagree,” but it was also a subject on which Brown, in light of its own history, had a “special obligation and special opportunity to provide thoughtful inquiry.” The president stressed that the Committee would not determine whether or how Brown might pay monetary reparations, nor did she expect it to forge a consensus on the reparations question. Its task, rather, was “to provide factual information and critical perspectives to deepen understanding” and enrich debate about an issue that had aroused great public passion but little constructive public dialogue.

Section Three of the Report pertains to this aspect of the Committee’s charge. It examines the contours of the current slavery reparations controversy, recounting recent efforts to obtain reparations through legislation or litigation, as well as the criticism and opposition that these efforts have provoked. It also examines the controversy’s deeper historical roots, a context that has been almost completely overlooked in current political debate. What actually happened when slavery was abolished, first in northern states like Rhode Island, and later in the South? What legacies did slavery bequeath to the nation, and what attempts were made to redress those legacies, both in the immediate aftermath of abolition and subsequently? What forms has the movement for redress taken at different historical moments, with what results? In examining these and other questions, the Report does not seek to resolve the reparations controversy but rather to offer factual information and critical perspectives that might help Americans of all persuasions discuss the issues more openly and thoughtfully. This section also contains extensive notes, elaborating particular issues and offering suggestions for further reading.

Conclusions and Recommendations

As even this short summary makes clear, the Steering Committee’s Report is intended not as the last word on the subjects of slavery and justice but rather as an invitation to continuing dialogue and debate on the Brown campus and in the nation as a whole. Yet in the course of their research, Committee members reached certain conclusions. These are presented in a short final section of the Report, accompanied by a series of recommendations directed specifically at Brown University. These recommendations include:

  • Formal acknowledgment by the University of the participation of many of Brown’s founders and benefactors in the institution of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, as well as the benefits that the University derived from them;
  • A series of initiatives, including the commissioning of a new University history and the erection of a slave trade memorial, to ensure that this aspect of Brown’s and Rhode Island’s history is properly understood and memorialized;
  • The creation of a dedicated academic center to foster research and teaching on issues related to slavery and other forms of historical and contemporary injustice, as well as the struggles against them;
  • Maintenance of the highest possible ethical standards in regard to investment and gifts;
  • Expanded opportunities at Brown for those disadvantaged by the legacies of slavery and the slave trade;
  • An array of initiatives with local public schools to help ensure quality education for the children of Rhode Island.

We cannot change the past. But an institution can hold itself accountable for the past, accepting its burdens and responsibilities along with its benefits and privileges. The Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice is offered in this spirit.