History hiding in plain sight

Nearing recommendations, slavery and justice committee explores wide-ranging issues

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Monday, April 17, 2006

Brown Confronts Slavery, First in a series

Though the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice was expected to submit its report to President Ruth Simmons this spring, it is unclear when the report will be submitted or whether it will be released publicly before summer. In this, the first of a series on the committee and its work, The Herald examines the committee’s reception, its charge and the Brown family’s involvement in slavery.

When the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice releases its recommendations, it will address the University’s involvement in slavery and the slave trade along with a much bigger question: if slavery is such an integral part of our country’s history, why is it so hard to talk about the issue?

The committee was created by Simmons in 2003 and has received substantial national press coverage in its three years of existence, including a New Yorker article in the fall of 2005. The Providence Journal recently printed a seven-part series exploring Rhode Island’s role in the slave trade, two parts of which were about the Brown family and its ventures in slave trading.

When the New York Times reported on the committee’s original charge in the spring of 2004, Simmons was singled out for her unique position as the first descendant of slaves to be president of a university whose founding players owned and traded slaves. Simmons sparked speculation that Brown would pay monetary reparations for slavery when she requested that the committee produce a set of recommendations as part of the report. (Simmons quickly dismissed the possibility in an April 2004 Boston Globe editorial.)

But the committee’s work has encompassed a far wider range of topics than one university’s reconciliation with its past or the debate over reparations as it has been conducted in recent years through litigation against major American corporations. Its charge has provided an opportunity for committee members to step back and examine the ways in which Americans address their historical ties to an institution that most people today are still uncomfortable discussing.

In the 2004 Times article, Simmons said she was motivated to create the committee by a sense that discussions about reparations are often reduced to one-dimensional, surface-level arguments.

James Campbell, chair of the committee and associate professor of history, stressed the committee’s ability to enrich this dialogue.

“A number of sources have converged to make this a moment where (the way we discuss our historical ties to slavery) matters. That’s what’s really cool about this,” Campbell said. “We’re living at a moment in which the terms of the public discussion about history are shifting.”

The Brown brothers and slavery

On a superficial level, the University’s founder and major benefactors played a relatively insignificant role in slavery and the slave trade. Originally opened in 1764 as Rhode Island College in Warren, R.I., the University was founded by Baptist Reverend James Manning. Manning freed his only slave in 1770, but he accepted donations from numerous slave owners and traders – including prosperous Providence merchants John, Nicholas, Joseph and Moses Brown, whose father James had initiated the city’s shift to a trading economy when he opened a small shop in the 1720s.

John and Nicholas Brown were signatories on the charter of Rhode Island College, and Joseph was an architect of University Hall and the First Baptist Church in America on North Main Street as well as a professor of experimental philosophy at the college. The firm Nicholas Brown and Company was responsible for the construction of the College Edifice, which would later be renamed University Hall, and the company was known to have employed some slaves in nearby spermaceti candle and pig iron factories, from which most of its profits were derived.

John Brown, whose residence on Power Street houses the Rhode Island Historical Society today and who later became an outspoken proponent of the slave trade in Congress, served as treasurer of the college for over 20 years.

John Brown invested in five slaving voyages between 1764 and 1795, according to Stanley Lemons, professor of history at Rhode Island College, but all four Brown brothers were only connected to one voyage: that of the Sally.

“The Brown brothers took extensively good records,” all of which are in the John Hay library, Campbell said. “We can track their business records amazingly well,” he added.

The slaving ship Sally was dispatched to the west coast of Africa in 1764, the year the University was founded. Though most Rhode Island captains spent about four months on the African coast, it took captain Esek Hopkins – after whom a park, monument and avenue in Providence are named – nine months to complete his business in Africa. In that time, his crew was exposed to malaria, yellow fever and amoebic dysentery, which was known to traders as the “bloody flux.” While still in Africa, slaves began hanging themselves on the Sally, and by the time he returned, Hopkins had lost 109 Africans. In the Providence Journal series, Campbell speculated that the Brown brothers lost the equivalent of $10,000 on the voyage.

“The debacle represented a turning point for three of the brothers – Nicholas, Joseph and Moses – who thereafter left the trade for good,” Campbell told the Journal.

“There are a lot of ships probably that had the experience of the Sally, but this is really good documentation of it,” Lemons said. “Everything that could go wrong on one of these slave voyages went wrong.”

Lemons said no members of the Brown family made money on the slave trade.

“It’s a mark of the desperation of Rhode Islanders to earn a living that they turn to all these enterprises – some which are, from our view, plainly immoral,” he said, adding that Rhode Islanders never put more than about 10 percent of their assets into the slave trade.

“The slave trade is a marginal enterprise for Rhode Islanders – especially the Brown family,” Lemons said. “The merchant economy was such that if you didn’t keep all of your assets in play, you would probably go bankrupt. You’re working on such a narrow margin – that’s a measure of the precarious nature of the oceanic economy of Rhode Island.”

Moses was the first of the Brown brothers to free his slaves and created an ironic dichotomy in the family, converting to the Quaker faith and founding Providence’s first abolitionist society.

Contrary to popular belief, the University was not named for John Brown but in fact for Nicholas Brown’s son, Nicholas Jr., who graduated in the class of 1786. Nicholas Jr. donated $5,000 to the University toward the endowment of a professorship in 1804, a year after John Brown died in his College Hill home. Nicholas Jr., who later succeeded his uncle as treasurer of the University and whose donations to the school ultimately totaled near $160,000, was a member of his uncle Moses’ abolitionist society.

“Brown, like a great many other people in the late 18th century, was indirectly a beneficiary on a very very small scale of the fact that slavery was a source of wealth in this country,” James Patterson, a committee member and professor emeritus of history, told the New York Times in 2004.