University Hall construction records show U.’s nuanced ties to slavery

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Brown Confronts Slavery, Third 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 third in a series on the committee and its work, The Herald examines the role of slavery in the construction of University Hall.

Framed documents line the hallway just north of President Ruth Simmons’ office in University Hall. They are reproductions of pages from the account book of Nicholas Brown and Company, which oversaw the construction of the first building on College Hill to house the University. The pages list expenses paid by the University for everything from lumber to wages.

The record for June 1, 1770, written in meticulous, spindly script, makes note of this expense: “Paid Henry Paget, Esq. for 12 ½ Days Work of his Negro Pero.”

There are more. One of the records framed on the wall, from May 25 of the same year, reads, “To 12 days work of Earle’s Negro.” And the record for February 8, 1771, includes the entry, “To 10 Days work of Mary Young’s Negro Man.”

James Campbell, associate professor of history and chair of the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, calls it “history hiding in plain sight.” A 2001 report released by the University’s News Service acknowledged that Nicholas Brown and Company “apparently utilized some slave labor” in the construction of University Hall.

“Pero is a Negro. And not only that, but he’s not getting his own money. Henry Paget is getting money that would have gone to Pero,” said Robert Emlen, Univerity curator and professor of American civilization. Emlen pointed out that the records do not necessarily implicate Nicholas Brown as a slaveowner – “it’s about him just handling the money for the college.”

A record from February 21, 1771, is less easy to decipher: “To Martha Smith, bill for 8 ½ Days Work of Abraham.” And on July 10, 1770, there is a record of an expense “To paid Mingow Negro.”

Not only is the race of the laborers sometimes unclear in the records, there are instances both of blacks being paid directly for their labor and of blacks whose wages were collected by others.

“Some of the people of color get paid their own money, and some of them don’t,” Emlen said. He thinks this is evidence that there were free blacks working side-by-side with slaves.

A nuanced pastDespite this ambiguity, there is one consistency throughout the records.

“The word slave is never used. Ever used,” Emlen said, adding that “servant,” a popular synonym for “slave” at the time, is also absent from the pages of the account book.

“I have this mental picture of free guys and slave guys working side by side, along with these Irish guys who are shoveling sand and lugging lumber up to the fourth floor – and everybody sitting down having coffee,” Emlen said. “It just is almost unbelievable for us to picture, but that’s the kind of inference you get from these records.”

Emlen said he has found evidence of at least three slaves who worked on the construction of University Hall. There may have been as many as four, if Martha Smith’s Abraham was indeed a slave, which Emlen said seems plausible because the records do not include his last name.

“You could go either way with it – maybe it was her 12-year-old kid who was just carrying water upstairs for the guys to drink,” Emlen said.

He mentioned one particular entry in the records for eight shillings, the price of a gallon of “W.I. rum,” to be credited to one donor’s account. The West Indian rum was ordered, Emlen said, as a treat for laborers who had finally dug to the bottom of a 30-foot well on the construction site.

“You’ve got black guys and white guys and slaves and freed men and an Indian sitting around on the job drinking rum together. It doesn’t mean that all day it was peace and love and harmony on the job site, but it’s not what we picture when we say people were enslaved to work on University Hall,” Emlen said. “So there are nuances to this. History is messy.”

Donations of slave laborIt is impossible to know for sure what sort of labor slaves contributed to the construction of University Hall.

“What (slaves) did, I have no idea. They may have laid a few bricks, they may have done some prepping work – I don’t know what their skill was,” said Stanley Lemons, professor of history at Rhode Island College. Lemons said the slaves could have been day laborers or skilled laborers.

“In slavery in Rhode Island, there were no white jobs and no black jobs as you had in the South – especially in an urban context,” Lemons added. He said since slave owners in the North wanted to maximize the value of their slaves, they often taught slaves skills such as carpentry and bookkeeping.

Lemons estimated that in 1770, about a quarter of households in Providence owned slaves.

Though slave labor was unquestionably used in the construction of University Hall, it seems unlikely that Nicholas Brown and Company employed any slaves directly, taking donations instead in the form of slave labor.

“Brown University did not own any slaves,” Emlen said. In order to build University Hall, trustees solicited donations from everyone in the neighborhood. Hard money was scarce in the colonial period, so donors sometimes offered goods or hours of labor instead of gold or silver currency.

“I think people who had slaves said, ‘I will give you my guy for the week, or the day, and that will be my contribution,'” Emlen said.

He used an anecdote from the Browns’ records to illustrate how tightly funds were managed. Supposedly, when a widow neglected to follow up on her pledged donation to the University because her husband died and left her homeless and poor, the University’s trustees took her to court and sued her.

“I think the reason there are people of color working on this job – enslaved people – is that their services were contributed by slaveowners who pledged money to the building campaign. That’s my explanation,” Emlen said.

University Hall todayThough the bricks that compose the shell of University Hall are the same bricks that were laid in 1770, the interior of the building is very different today.

From 1776 to 1783, University Hall was closed for use by American troops in the Revolutionary War. It was later used as a hospital, during which time a hole was blasted into one of its walls for the transportation of stretchers and equipment in and out of the building. Today, that part of the wall is recognizable by a dark patch of bricks.

“(University Hall) is the same size and shape, and the exterior has not been substantially altered, but it was always being changed over the years,” Emlen said. He said by the 1930s, University Hall had served as classroom space, a chapel, a library and a dining hall and had to be either torn down or completely rebuilt.

“It was a hodgepodge of retro fits … and so they completely gutted it and rebuilt it,” Emlen said.

Architects working on the inside of the building aimed to recreate the “gracious, 18th-century Georgian building” reminiscent of Williamsburg that anchors Brown’s campus today, he said.