Slavery & justice report outlines path for repair

A center for the study of slavery, a memorial commemorating the slave trade, recruitment of students from the West Indies and Africa and an annual day of remembrance are among the possible outcomes of the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice.

After nearly three years of discussion and deliberation, the committee posted its 106-page final report on the University’s Web site with little fanfare or advance warning.

President Ruth Simmons charged the committee in 2003 with investigating Brown’s ties to slavery and helping the campus come to terms with their ramifications for the present.

None of the recommendations of the committee, which was composed of faculty, students and administrators, has been formally approved by Simmons.

In a campus-wide e-mail yesterday, Simmons said she would respond to the “dense and provocative” report and its recommendations “when it is appropriate to do so.”

“I have no doubt that everyone who reads this will find something they object to,” said Associate Professor of History James Campbell, the committee’s chair.

In its first two recommendations, the committee calls for a formal, public acknowledgment of the University’s historical relationship to slavery and a commitment to “tell the truth in all its complexity.”

Whether an apology holds significant meaning sparked some debate within the committee, said committee member Omer Bartov, a professor of history.

But the first element of the recommendations – acknowledgement – is particularly important, though not sufficient, for repairing historical injustice, he said.

“Without (acknowledgement) whatever else you do lacks the most basic fundamental moral value,” said Bartov, whose research focuses on genocide and crimes against humanity.

While the report is a first step in establishing awareness of a history “largely erased from the collective memory of our University and state,” the committee also recommended a continuation of public forums into the future, the inclusion of reference to Brown’s ties to slavery during first-year Orientation and the commission of a new history of the University. The current Brown history makes “virtually no reference to slavery or the slave trade,” the report states.

The report recommends the creation of a scholarly center dedicated to researching slavery and other types of injustice, human rights movements and the meanings of individual and institutional responsibility. The recommendations call for the center to have a full-time director, a new endowed professorship, fellowships for scholars, public programming and an educational outreach component.

While acknowledging the awkwardness of memorializing legacies of historical injustice, the report urges the University to “create a living site of memory, inviting reflection and fresh discovery without provoking paralysis or shame.” It proposes a public competition for the design of a slave trade memorial on campus as well as an annual day of remembrance.

Each of the recommendations is left open to interpretation, but Bartov said he believes the center and memorial could be linked. Together, they would create a physical space for commemoration and discussion.

Bartov hopes a center will both generate serious academic research and send students into the field to combat crimes against humanity – a combination he said would be the first of its kind.

“It’s possible that in the long run this (center) would be the main legacy of the report, if it’s successful. If it’s not, it could be the great failure of the report,” Bartov said.

The recommendations also call for an increased level of transparency and accountability regarding ethical standards in University investments and gifts. The report praises Brown’s decision earlier this year to divest from companies doing business in Darfur but questioned the increasingly large portion of the University’s endowment that is invested in hedge funds.

According to the report, many people wrote to the committee in support of the creation of a special scholarship for black students.

The committee’s formation sparked national speculation about whether the University would pay reparations for slavery, a prospect Simmons dismissed in a 2004 Boston Globe editorial.

Bartov said the committee never discussed whether the University should pay reparations for its role in slavery.

“We needed to repair that kind of role by doing things at the University itself and not by looking for people to whom we could give a check,” he said.

The report makes no monetary recommendations but does call for increased financial aid and eventual need-blind admissions for international students in the interest of creating a more diverse student body. It also calls for recruitment of students from Africa and the West Indies, two areas affected by the colonial slave trade.

The report recommends Brown dedicate resources to improving education in Rhode Island. This can be accomplished in part through free University classes for local educators and full tuition waivers for students enrolled in the Master of Arts in Teaching Program who commit to working for at least three years in local public schools, according to the report.

All but one of Providence’s public schools currently fall short of federal achievement standards, according to the report.

Finally, the report calls for the appointment of a committee to monitor future implementation of its recommendations. Specifics of the committee’s makeup and responsibilities have yet to be determined, but Campbell and Bartov told The Herald they will not be members.

“Maybe in the dialogue that unfolds it will become clear that some of these aren’t going to (be implemented), or that there are other ideas that are better,” Campbell said. “That’s fine – I think that would be great. Once again, this wasn’t intended as the last word.”

Bartov said he is confident many of the recommendations will materialize.

“I know that President Simmons is very serious about this,” he said. “She did not appoint this committee thoughtlessly. …This is not just for show.”

Simmons has been quiet over the course of the committee’s work.

“She will, in due time, tell us what she thinks, but I think she doesn’t want to short-circuit a discussion on campus,” Campbell said.

There is no official timeline for implementation of any recommendations, and all will be subject to community discussion, Campbell said. An open public forum is scheduled for Nov. 1 at 4 p.m. in Salomon 101, at which committee members will be present to discuss the report.

Beyond recommendationsWhen the report was released Wednesday afternoon, national media attention focused on the last four pages of the document – the recommendations. But for committee members, the report’s greatest significance lies in three sections addressing Brown’s ties to slavery, models for restorative justice and the history of the reparations movement in America.

More important than the recommendations, they say, is the University community’s responsibility now to engage with and debate the contents of the report.

The first of the three sections explores not only the University’s complicity in slavery, but also the effects of the institution of slavery on Brown’s entire history.

Supplemented by extensive historical documents organized in an online archive, this section explains in great detail the role of Rhode Island and New England in the colonial slave trade, the relationship of the four Brown brothers to slavery and the use of slave labor in the construction of University Hall.

The report includes a fuller history of the University, Rhode Island and the slave trade “than has ever been written at Brown before,” said Ross Cheit, associate professor of public policy and a member of the committee.

“One of the recommendations is about telling your own history honestly. … I don’t think we’re holding it out as the definitive work, but the detail about Brown’s own history is something that we hope people do read and that we’re proud is in (the report),” Cheit said.

“And it’s not a terrible story about Brown,” he added. “I don’t know what people will conclude, but compared to things I’ve heard about Brown being founded on the profits of the slave trade – that turned out in a lot of ways not to be true.”

A second section examines models of “restorative justice” – how other institutions and even nations have sought to address their own painful pasts. The section discusses the consistent occurrence of slavery and other crimes against humanity throughout history and the emergence of the notion of shared humanity in the 18th century.

It explores the definition of crimes against humanity, how the slave trade fits into international law and the effectiveness of reparative justice – which includes apologies, truth commissions to investigate past crimes and reparations in monetary and other forms. Taking a global perspective, the section examines how nations such as Turkey, South Africa and Australia have dealt with these three forms of reparative justice.

“Accepting historical responsibility means doing substantial things,” Campbell said.

“(We looked at) societies that elected the course of denial and evasion, and it does seem to me that societies that confront their histories are stronger,” he said.

The United States’ own efforts to confront slavery and the history of the reparations debate up to the present day form the third section of the report. It traces the history of black Americans and, specifically, black Rhode Islanders, through the unrealized promises of Reconstruction and their struggle for land and education since the Civil War.

Examining in detail the national debate over reparations that emerged in the 1990s, the report also mentions Brown’s own place in the reparations debate. It references the controversy sparked by a 2001 ad denouncing reparations placed in The Herald by pundit David Horowitz.

As a striking demonstration of racial inequality in America today, the report cites Hurricane Katrina, which “clearly bespoke a nation that remains deeply conflicted about the meaning of its past.”

Throughout, the committee’s report connects its historical and comparative content to the public forums and speakers it has brought to the University since 2004.

The report’s conclusion declares, “American slavery and the transatlantic trade that fed it were crimes against humanity” – the first time Bartov said he believes American slavery has been described as such within the country.

As institutions that encourage an honest exchange of ideas, universities have a responsibility to address slavery and its ramifications, the report states. “If this nation is ever to have a serious dialogue about slavery, Jim Crow, and the bitter legacies they have bequeathed to us, then universities must provide the leadership,” the report states.

Vanessa Huang ’06, who served on the committee and now works as an anti-prison activist, said she hopes the community will engage with the report, though she realizes not all students will take the time to peruse the 106-page document.

“I think some students will read it. Some will probably, like other people, just read the recommendations,” Huang said.

Simmons, in her e-mail to the community sent Wednesday afternoon, urged community members not to focus on the recommendations but to read the report in its entirety.

Campbell is confident the report will be read. “I do think there’ll be a lot of conversations,” he said. “My suspicion is that a lot of students will read or dip into this report, and they’re going to talk about it.”