Slavery & justice report to be released today

Following delays, report to address U.'s ties to slavery and make recommendations

By
Monday, October 23, 2006

The long-awaited final report of the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice will be posted on Brown’s Web site “as early as tomorrow,” according to Michael Chapman, vice president for public affairs and University relations. The announcement of the report’s release came at a Tuesday afternoon meeting of the Brown University Community Council.

James Campbell, associate professor of history and the committee’s chair, gave an update on the committee’s work, presenting parts of a Web site – currently under construction – that will feature not only the report itself, but also an archive of extensive resources and side projects that came out of the effort.

The 110-page report – 25 pages of which are references and notes – includes a large section on the history of the University’s ties to slavery and the slave trade as well as a section on different models of repair and restorative justice employed by other institutions and nations. Another section makes recommendations to the University in light of the committee’s three years of work, which included 35 public programs.

The committee was charged by President Ruth Simmons in 2003 “to investigate the University’s historical relationship to slavery and the slave trade” and “report the facts of what we found openly and truthfully,” Campbell said.

The report was originally expected to be released last spring.

An open public forum is scheduled for Nov. 1 at 4 p.m. in Salomon 101, where committee members will be present to discuss the report.

“What we have essentially tried to do is model on our campus a conversation, to show how it’s possible for universities – indeed, incumbent on universities – to confront in reasonable, thoughtful ways topics that are awkward and difficult for people, and controversial,” Campbell said.

“We were also asked to organize public programs that would help our students and more hopefully, the nation, think in a serious, sustained, intellectually rigorous way about the meaning of this history in the present – in particular, the kinds of historical, legal, political, moral problems that emerge when we try in the present to confront legacies of injustice in the past,” he added.

Campbell spoke guardedly at the BUCC meeting about the report’s release until Simmons broached the topic after his presentation. Campbell delivered the final version of the report to Simmons just minutes before Tuesday’s meeting, she revealed.

“We will put it on the Web site. … As of tomorrow morning, people should be able to read it,” Simmons said, though Campbell added, “just to be on the safe side, tomorrow afternoon.”

“When it goes live, everyone – the whole world – will have access to it,” Simmons said.

“We’ve created a Web site specifically for this report, and the report will be in PDF format along with some links to related documents – the plan is not really to have a (formal) press release,” Chapman said, because the committee’s work was intended to be “a community-oriented project … everybody will have equal access to it at the same time.”

In addition to alerting those on campus, about 45,000 alums will be notified by e-mail of the report’s release, Chapman said.

A 2004 New York Times article speculated whether the committee’s recommendations might include some form of monetary reparations. Simmons later dismissed the possibility in a Boston Globe editorial.

Acknowledging national media attention the committee received after it was appointed, Campbell said the goal in releasing the report is “not to turn this into a 15-minute media flurry,” but instead to encourage “serious, sustained discussion” on campus.

“The report isn’t intended to be the last word. … This isn’t a process of closure, this is a process of dialogue,” Campbell said. “(The committee) should survive long enough to answer questions – we owe that, right? – but then we fold up our tent. At that point (perpetuating discussion on campus) becomes the province of other people, including (the BUCC),” he said, expressing hope that public programming related to the committee and its report will continue into coming years.

Committee members Seth Magaziner ’06 and Associate Professor of History Michael Vorenberg both told The Herald Tuesday night the report would likely stimulate discussion beyond Brown’s campus.

“My guess is that it will generate a lot of discussion, but I can’t really predict what that discussion will be like,” Vorenberg said. Commenting on the recommendations themselves, he said, would be “premature.”

Though the report may support the continuation of public events and forums like those the committee has held in recent years, Magaziner said some recommendations will be “more permanent.”

“I think the recommendations hit a good balance of being bold but also being feasible,” Magaziner said. “It all has to do with Brown being a university, a center of research, a center of education.”

As to whether the report might generate controversy, Magaziner said the recommendations are “not things that are really easy to object to, at least in my opinion.”

Neither Magaziner nor Vorenberg would comment on details of the recommendations before the report’s release.

Vorenberg said the report went through many drafts and that the final version effectively connects the report’s historical and academic content to the recommendations.

But Magaziner stressed that the committee’s report offers only recommendations, not mandates for action. Whether or not the recommendations will be implemented is up to Simmons, he said.

In response to a question, Campbell commented on “Sons of Providence,” a book written by Charles Rappleye and published earlier this year that focuses in part on the Brown brothers’ involvement in the slave trade.

“The book reads the entire struggle over slavery … in the United States through two brothers who he basically re-stages as a Cain and Abel story,” Campbell said, referencing the lifelong ideological battle between John Brown, who supported slavery and served as University treasurer, and his brother Moses Brown, an abolitionist.

“Part of what we’re also trying to do is to broaden that outlook, and part of what I think that book fails to do – that we were very interested in – is trying to reconstruct sets of contexts; and in particular, to look at what was happening on this campus,” Campbell said.

“How do you introduce students to conversation over issues that are difficult? There are two obvious ways: thinking comparatively – looking at the experiences of institutions and societies around the world that have engaged with legacies of historic injustice and you see what you can learn,” Campbell said.

A second context, he said, involves illuminating the ways in which Brown’s campus has been struggling with issues related to slavery throughout the course of history. He cited an example of a Brown student who was arrested and publicly whipped in Tennessee in 1835 for distributing abolitionist literature.

“That story was an extraordinarily rich one. … It changed my way of thinking about what the committee wants. We’re not simply indulging (Simmons’ charge) … what we are doing is re-entering a conversation that has gone on on this campus for 200 years,” Campbell said.

– With additional reporting by Mary-Catherine Lader