U. launches commission to consider slavery memorial

Monday, July 16, 2007

The University has established a commission to consider how best to publicly acknowledge Brown’s ties to the transatlantic slave trade and the history of slavery in Rhode Island.

The 10-person commission was created earlier this month in response to one of the recommendations made in the October 2006 report of the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. The recommendation specified that Brown should set up a “living site of memory” as a way to address the University’s historic ties to the Rhode Island slave trade and move forward.

The committee’s report detailed the University’s early benefactors’ ties to the slave trade and offered a comparative study of how other countries have addressed legacies of historical injustice. In addition to a slave trade memorial, the report called for a $10-million endowment to improve Providence public schools and the creation of a center for slavery and justice research.

The commission, which includes representatives from Brown and individuals nominated by Gov. Donald Carcieri ’65 and Providence Mayor David Cicilline ’83, will meet for the first time in August to recommend possible monuments, sites and ceremonies for a memorial.

Committee members said it is too early to say what kinds of proposals will be evaluated or what the timeline for consideration will be. But committee member Kerry Smith, an associate professor of history and chair of the Department of East Asian Studies, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald that the process of discussing proposals and debating outcomes is just as important as the memorial itself.

“That ability to engage in dialogue with the community is very important in the memorialization process,” wrote Smith, who also served on the steering committee.

Smith will draw from his own research, which focuses on the construction of historical memory in Japan, in discussing memorials.

“That, I suspect, gives me a sense of how tenacious and complicated questions of memory, of historical commemoration (and its absence) can be in communities outside of the United States,” he wrote.

The commission is also comprised of members of the Providence community, including Joaquina Bela Teixeira, the executive director of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society. Teixeira said the BHS has ideas about what might make a meaningful memorial, but she said she would try to approach discussions without preconceived notions.

“This is not simply a memorial to one war,” Teixeira said. “It’s over centuries of time, and we need to honor the length and depth of that experience. We need to create in the hearts and minds of people who experience the site something that will transcend the nature of time and connect both black and white.”

Teixeira also underscored the scope of slavery’s history, saying it is “not just about Brown’s role in the trafficking of slaves, but about Rhode Island as a whole.”

Other members of the commission include Associate Professor of Visual Art Kerry Coppin, Professor of American Civilization and Director of the Nicholas Brown Center for the Study of American Civilization Steven Lubar and Dietrich Neumann, a professor of history of art and architecture. The commission also includes Deborah Smith, the director of municipal and external affairs in the Office of the Governor, O. Rogeriee Thompson, an associate justice at the Rhode Island Superior Court, and Spencer Crew, the president and CEO of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. Rabbi Leslie Gutterman of Temple Beth-El and Michael S. Van Leesten, president of the Van Leesten Group and deputy executive director of public affairs at the Massachusetts Pequot Tribal Nation, will also serve on the commission.

In addition, Brenda Allen, associate provost and director of institutional diversity and Jo-Ann Conklin, the director of the David Winton Bell Gallery, will work with and advise the commission.