A Peculiar Responsibility: Colleges and universities grapple with their ties to slavery

A Peculiar Responsibility: Colleges and universities grapple with their ties to slavery

A Peculiar Responsibility: Colleges and universities grapple with their ties to slavery

American colleges and universities grapple with their ties to slavery.


Right-wing gadfly David Horowitz struck at Brown University in 2001, buying a provocative ad in the Brown Daily Herald titled “10 Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea–And Racist Too.” The ad contained twisted formulations suggesting, for example, that African Americans owe whites a debt for liberating them from slavery. In response, a group of angry students stole an entire day’s run of the newspaper, setting off a national media frenzy debating race and the limits of free speech.

But against all odds, this Horowitz fantasy scenario ultimately led to positive moral and intellectual development. Brown’s incoming president, Ruth Simmons, is said to have realized that the flap over Horowitz’s ad could be a “teaching moment.” And there was something else: Brown, founded in 1764, had known ties to slavery and the slave trade, even though the topic was absent from the university’s official history. It was particularly striking that Simmons, the Ivy League’s first black president and the great-great-granddaughter of slaves, shared her office in University Hall with a portrait of one-time slave owner James Manning, Brown’s first president.

So Simmons created the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, made up of faculty, administrators, and students, and charged it in April 2003 with examining Brown’s ties to slavery and making a serious study of the reparations issue.

But getting students involved proved difficult. Brown’s committee strove to encourage student participation and several undergraduates contributed research. But even as events and speakers were widely advertised, many students opted not to take part in a rare opportunity to engage with history in a meaningful way. While over 300 people turned for a lecture by historian John Hope Franklin, attendance at committee events was often dominated by locals unaffiliated with Brown. Even when the report came out last fall to national media coverage, apathy stubbornly persisted. Forty percent of students in a Brown Daily Herald poll said they had not heard of or were uninterested in the committee.

However high-minded they are, institutions undertaking these types of historical inquiries should expect criticism. At one slavery and justice forum at Brown, a neo-Nazi group showed up to denounce the “exercise in white guilt.” One letter-writer told the committee, “You disgust me, as you disgust many other Americans. Slavery was wrong, but at that time it was a legal enterprise. It ended, case closed.” And columnist Thomas Sowell of the conservative Hoover Institution asserted (backed up by zero original reporting) that Brown’s effort was a classic example of “race-hustling” and “no academic exercise of scholarly research.”

University of Alabama law professor Alfred Brophy advises any school considering such a commission, “Realize this is controversial and will antagonize people. And make sure that you can articulate what is positive that will come out of this.”

Brophy, who has written widely on universities and reparations, led a successful drive in 2004 to have Alabama’s faculty senate apologize for its involvement in slavery. Faculty members at Alabama in the antebellum period were not only pro-slavery advocates, they were also responsible for whipping students’ slaves on campus. Brophy told Campus Progress that an apology was not enough to overcome the past, but it was a step in the right direction.

“When you see the reaction to this–there were people angry about this–you realize an apology is not meaningless, it is very meaningful,” Brophy said.

Last fall, after three years of work and over 30 public programs, Brown’s committee released its report. The 100-page document makes recommendations on how the University should hold itself accountable for its entanglements with slavery, “the prototypical crime against humanity.” Just as important, it provides a full history of Brown and slavery, a comparative look at the problem of “retrospective justice,” and a history of the reparations debate in America. The committee also posted videos of lectures and forums online along with relevant historical documents.

Other schools, too, have recently confronted their historical ties to slavery–histories that often have been glossed over or forgotten–and have attempted their own forms of redress. Still others are now considering proposals to investigate their involvement with slavery. Whether these efforts will spread is uncertain. But it is clear that there’s no shortage of universities implicated in slavery, and that there are lessons to be learned from Brown’s experience.

“I think any university of this vintage will have its own distinctive web of entanglements with slavery and the transatlantic slave trade” James Campbell, a Brown history professor and chair of the slavery and justice committee, told Campus Progress.

The Brown committee’s report is a stark reminder of the bankruptcy of what Robert Penn Warren called the “Treasury of Virtue”–the idea that the North was not implicated in slavery, and that the Civil War was fought solely to end the peculiar institution. Half of slave-trading ships originating in North America left from ports in Rhode Island. Of the leading citizens who served on the Brown Corporation (the university’s governing board) in that era, about 30 owned or captained slave ships. Brown’s first endowment campaign received donations from men like South Carolinian Henry Laurens, who ran the largest slave-trading house in North America. And four slaves helped build University Hall, Brown’s main administrative building. They are identified in construction records only by the names of their owners (“Earle’s Negro,” for example), who lent the slaves’ labor as a form of donation to the college. The enormous scope of slavery, however, makes it impossible to peg exact numbers on slave money in Brown’s history. “[S]lavery was not a distinct enterprise but rather an institution that permeated every aspect of social and economic life in Rhode Island,” the report says.

The most arresting part of the report is the story of the slave ship Sally, a joint venture of the four Brown brothers, prosperous merchants who were heavily involved in the early governance of the College of Rhode Island–later to be renamed Brown University. The ship set out for Africa from Providence in 1764, the year the university was founded. Most of its cargo was taken up by 17,000 gallons of rum to trade for slaves on the African coast. They would later be sold in the West Indies to harvest sugar cane, a product in turn bound for the rum distilleries of Rhode Island. Of the 196 Africans acquired by the Sally, 109 died from disease, suicide, and other means by the time the ship arrived back in Providence. This notation from the ship’s account book reported an uprising on the eighth day at sea: “Slaves Rose on us was obliged fire on them and Destroyed Eight and Several more wounded badly 1 Thye and ones Ribs broke.” [sic]

But the report is not merely a catalogue of sins. There are heroes, too. There is James Tallmadge, the undergraduate who gave the 1790 commencement address denouncing the slave trade as “repugnant to the laws of God”–before an audience that likely included practitioners of the trade. And there is Moses Brown, who broke with his brothers when he converted to Quakerism, freed his slaves, and became a zealous abolitionist. Ironically, Moses the anti-slavery activist also became the pioneer of Rhode Island’s textile industry, which thrived on slave-produced cotton.

It is crucial for universities pursuing such projects to present historical findings in all their complexity, according to Campbell.

“Our starting point was, we think we know this history, but we don’t. It has much to teach us,” he said. “If you’re going to talk about the legacy of history and its implications for the present, let’s figure out what happened.”

Brown’s slavery and justice report presents a comparative study of attempts at retrospective justice, from South Africa’s truth commission and compensation for Holocaust victims to, on the other end of the spectrum, the Turkish government’s continuing denial of the Armenian genocide. The report also addresses the “familiar extenuations” for slavery: “that direct victims and perpetrators are long since dead” and “that many, even most, Americans are descendants of immigrants who came to the United States after 1865.” These are true, the report says, “but they neither expunge the crimes nor erase their enduring legacies.”

The committee concluded that the most successful initiatives contained three elements: acknowledgement of an offense, a commitment to truth-telling, and the making of amends in the present. In Brown’s case, the report says, this third element should include increasing recruiting in Africa and the West Indies, creating a center to study slavery and justice, and dedicating resources to improving public education in Rhode Island.

But for universities, the most important form of repair–reparations–may simply be recovering lost historical narratives. “Folks really need to have a thorough investigation even before they begin to call for further action. You need some good historians on the case,” Brophy said.

In April, the board of the University of Virginia unanimously passed a resolution expressing “particular regret” for the school’s past use of slave labor. It was hailed by Brophy and others as an important step from a well-known university. But the apology was unceremoniously announced in a press release 11 days after the fact and unaccompanied by any investigation or process of self-discovery.

Another storied Virginia institution, William and Mary, is poised to take a different route. English professor Terry Meyers told Campus Progress he has introduced a resolution in the faculty assembly to fund a two-year position for a scholar to research the history of slavery and race relations at the college. Meyers said he came upon a document showing that in the early 1700s the college purchased a tobacco plantation and 17 slaves to support a scholarship program. He turned to the three major histories of William and Mary, and while each referred to the scholarship program, none mentioned the slaves and the plantation.

He said he expects his resolution to pass when it is voted on in September. “We’re a mature corporate body and we have a glorious past,” Meyers said. “But there are things that we did that are very ugly and that we need to take a look at.”

Meyers likes to quote Thomas Hardy, who wrote, “If way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst.” Other universities considering a fresh examination of their ties to slavery would also do well to consider the words of Campbell, chair of the Brown committee:

“Maybe it’s just an occupational hazard as an historian, but I believe that the past matters. I believe that the more a society is able to understand and confront its past, the healthier it will be,” he said. “The stories that we tell about our past not only shape who we are as a society but also shape the matrix of political possibility in the present.”

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