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A tangled web
Brown University’s study of its own participation in slavery could spread discomfort far and wide

NEW ENGLANDERS have long embraced a conceit about American slavery: that it happened far away, in the South, and that New England led the way to making things right, first by spawning the abolitionist movement, and then by helping to win the Civil War.

The reality is far less comfortable. Historians say that the New England economy was heavily invested in slavery. The region played a big role in the slave trade, including shipping slaves from Africa to the United States. It also profited indirectly, as Northern farmers shipped their produce to Southern plantations. Even New England’s most prestigious universities were tainted — including Harvard, Yale, and Brown, which received money in their early years from donors who made their money, in part, from slavery.

Now, in an unusual move, Brown University — named for a Rhode Island family with clear ties to the slave trade — has formed a group, called the Committee on Slavery and Justice, to confront its own history. Established in April 2003 and given two and a half years to complete its work, the committee is engaged in scholarship, discussion, and research, with a view toward recommending how Brown can atone for its founders’ sins.

The effort has drawn national news coverage because it was launched not by some campus gadfly, but by the university’s own president, Ruth J. Simmons. Simmons has a unique perspective on the subject: she’s the great-granddaughter of slaves and the first African-American to head an Ivy League university.

It’s also a high-risk undertaking. Not only are big institutions such as universities potential targets of reparations lawsuits, but Brown is trying to raise millions from alumni and other potential donors for new buildings and expanded academic programs. Thus, it’s possible that Brown’s own research could provide grist for legal claims, while would-be contributors might be skittish about donating money they fear might be turned into reparations payments.

Members of the Committee on Slavery and Justice insist that cash reparations are only one of many possible solutions — and not necessarily the most likely — that the group might recommend, and that Simmons placed no preconditions on the outcome. But regardless of the study’s formal conclusions, its effects will undoubtedly reach beyond Brown University. First, by voluntarily launching an exploration of its own uncomfortable past, Brown may be setting an example impossible to ignore for others, including such Ivy League rivals as Yale and Harvard, which have similar histories — and much deeper financial pockets. Second, the Brown study will likely land Rhode Island’s role in the slave trade in the national spotlight, and for good reason: the Brown family was only one player in a much-larger Rhode Island economy that was up to its hip boots in slavery. In what will come as a surprise to many present-day Ocean Staters, Rhode Island was the point of departure for about half of all the slave-trading voyages launched from North America. And slave labor itself was common in early Rhode Island. For example, a quarter of Newport’s population was held in slavery, and some of the popular tourist destination’s landmarks — the Old Colony House, Brick Market, and the Redwood Library — were reportedly built with slave labor.

Thus, when the Brown committee hands in its report in the fall of 2005, it’s possible that among those receiving failing grades will be not only the university, but also the state, and, by implication, its institutions and businesses. As Clifford R. Montiero, president of the Providence branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), puts it, "I think it’s going to affect a lot of people, and I would imagine there are a lot of people that would rather keep the blanket over slavery than to take it off and see what the real meat and potatoes are of slavery."

THERE’S NO question that the Brown family was involved in slavery, a fact it doesn’t take much sleuthing to track down, since the university readily shares its own authoritative reports on the subject. Four brothers — John, Moses, Nicholas, and Joseph — were merchants, industrialists, and bankers, and in 1765, the family firm, Nicholas Brown & Company, financed what would become the last slave voyage three of the brothers were willing to support. At that point, Moses, Nicholas, and Joseph withdrew from the trade, but John Brown remained active, and during his business life, he invested in as many as 10 slaving voyages. In fact, John Brown (not to be confused with the famous 1850s abolitionist) persisted in the trade after it was outlawed by both Rhode Island and the US Congress, and was tried for violating the Federal Slave Trade Act of 1794. Acquitted, he later voted against attempts to strengthen the act as a member of the US House of Representatives.

The Brown family used African-American slaves in its other businesses — a Providence candle factory, for example, and an iron works in Scituate. And the brothers owned slaves that labored in their households. Meanwhile, the Browns played a role in the university’s founding. When it was established as "Rhode Island College" in 1764, John and Moses Brown were charter signers. Later, John Brown served as the university treasurer, and he laid the cornerstone of its oldest building, University Hall.

There was, of course, another side to the Brown family. Moses Brown renounced slavery and founded the colony’s abolitionist movement, which, in turn, urged the unsuccessful prosecution of John Brown for violating anti-slavery laws. Moses and Nicholas also became abolitionists, as did Nicholas Jr.; it is the younger Nicholas, a major benefactor and university treasurer, for whom the school was renamed in 1804.

Still, the university’s links to slavery extended beyond the Brown family. James Manning, its first president, owned a personal slave (later freed). University Hall was built at least partially with the labor of four slaves. And historian Joanne Melish, according to local experts, has found records of early Southern donors who likely were involved in slavery.

To date, Brown University has not been the target of slavery-reparations lawsuits. However, at least two suits have named FleetBank, since one of its predecessor institutions, Providence Bank, was founded by John Brown, its first president. In January, one of the cases was dismissed in federal court in New York, but another has recently been filed in New York against FleetBoston, as well as Lloyd’s of London insurance company and the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company, alleging that their earlier slave-related businesses contributed to "genocide" against blacks. The litigation seeks $1 billion for the descendants of slaves.

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Issue Date: June 4 - 10, 2004
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