by Jo Beaton
Brown University is not only one of the most exceptional universities in the United States, but it is also proving exceptional in its approach to atoning for the misdeeds of its 18th century founders.
Brown University President Ruth Simmons implemented an initiative in 2003 to research the university’s “historical entanglement” with the slave trade. The first black president of an Ivy League university, Simmons, whose ancestors were slaves, was motivated to illuminate the complex issues around retrospective justice and to help create a new legacy for her campus. Her first step was to empower a committee, made up of faculty members, students and administrators, to determine the extent of the university’s ties to slavery.
In 2006, the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice synthesized the details of their extensive investigation into an 107 page document. Among many findings, the Slavery and Justice report revealed that not only were many of the University’s benefactors complicit in the transatlantic slave trade, but also that its founders owned slaves and slave ships, and that slave labor was used to construct some university buildings.
The committee compared dozens of examples of retrospective justice initiatives before making recommendations for the University. They discovered that “While each case is unique, the most successful generally combine three elements: formal acknowledgment of an offense; a commitment to truth telling, to ensure that the relevant facts are uncovered, discussed, and properly memorialized; and the making of some form of amends in the present to give material substance to expressions of regret and responsibility.”
Brown University is now embracing each of these elements in its efforts to make amends for its origins in slavery–from expanding its Department of Africana Studies and creating fellowships for the study of slavery and social justice, to funding scholarships, teaching positions and paying for supplies in urban public schools in Rhode Island. The committee was also charged with organizing public programs to “help the campus and the nation 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 past injustice.” A planned slavery memorial on campus is one more action of atonement for the past; more than 50 artists’ proposals are now being considered. In all, Brown has committed to spending $10 million.
Brown’s President Simmons hopes that other universities and companies in the U.S. will investigate their own connections to slavery, ultimately adding to a deeper awareness of country’s collective history and absorbing its significance in our culture. The Brown Daily Herald reports that Simmons wants “to see the rest of the nation engage this issue in the same way we have as a University.” Indeed, by taking these remarkable steps of atonement and reparation for its connections to the slave trade, Brown University is set to inspire other institutions to do their own detective work into the past, to make amends, and to right past wrongs–whatever they may be–for future generations.