Though the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice spent three years researching and writing a 106-page assessment of Brown’s ties to slavery, which it released last October, what was once a heated issue has all but disappeared from campus conversation just one year later. But on Tuesday night, at an award ceremony that honored the committee’s work for historical justice, President Ruth Simmons urged other institutions to follow Brown’s lead.
“We want to see the rest of the nation engage this issue in the same way we have as a university,” she said, accepting an award from Rhode Island for Community and Justice on behalf of the committee. “We are confident we can do it as a nation.”
The Providence-based nonprofit gives its Community and Justice awards annually to honor exemplary community leaders, this year honoring the committee’s report and Simmons’ commitment to public education in Rhode Island.
Formed by Simmons in 2003, the committee examined the University’s historic ties to slavery and the slave trade, ultimately recommending that Brown address its history with 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. While none of those suggestions has yet materialized, Simmons created a $10-million fund to support local public schools and boosted funding for the University’s urban education fellow program in response to the report.
Filmmaker Katrina Browne, who directed and produced the documentary “Traces of the Trade,” introduced Simmons. Browne is a descendant of the DeWolf family of Bristol, the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. Her film follows descendants of the DeWolf family as they struggle with the legacy of their family’s slave-trading past.
Browne applauded the University’s willingness to openly confront its links to slavery.
“President Ruth Simmons took a bold step right into the thick of this painful and unresolved history,” she said. “Instead of circling from a safe distance, she invited the Brown community to squarely consider the role of the slave trade in the founding of the University.”
Simmons asked members of the committee to join her on stage and emphasized the time and effort the committee put into its report. “It’s hard to understand the import of this unless you see how much time it took,” she said, reminding the audience that producing the report took three times longer than expected.
“So often we wonder, ‘What can we do?’ We look around and see the problems and think there’s nothing we can do. It matters to try,” she said. “It matters to try.”
Referencing the recent Jena 6 furor in Louisiana and an incident at Columbia University, Simmons said, “To know there are nooses in this country is to know we have serious work left to do.”
“Many people find talking about dark moments in history uncomfortable,” she said. “I believe these people are shortsighted. … Many people now see it as useful and necessary.”
The committee successfully demonstrated a link between “yesterday’s inequities and today’s problems,” Simmons said.
She applauded the committee for engaging “every possible” constituency, including Rhode Island teachers and students who she said were reluctant to get involved. Simmons commended the committee for its perseverance and emphasized the national and international attention its work has received, commenting on “invitations from all over the world to come and discuss their research.”
“We learn, and because we learn we are able to begin a different life,” Simmons said.
Talking to The Herald after the presentation, Browne said she had attended many of the committee’s open sessions and that they facilitated open dialogue about a sensitive subject. “I think, like most people, we’re all holding our breath waiting for the conflict and divisiveness. It felt like there was a real spirit of seriousness and willingness to talk about it,” she said.
Browne was optimistic about the prospects of the committee’s work extending into a national dialogue. “We all carry a lot of fears about this, but if we confront it … a lot of Americans would be willing to have an honest and hard discussion about this.”
Though the committee’s work has largely faded from students’ minds, Browne said the report is timely in light of the upcoming 2008 bicentennial for the abolition of the slave trade. “It’s a really exciting time to be raising these issues because there’s more discussion right now in Congress about the legacy of slavery,” and what the nation can do to address it, she said.
National media attention stirred up by the committee’s work “has helped pave the way” for a national conversation about the legacy of slavery, Browne said. “Their leadership has really made a difference,” she said.
Associate Professor of History Michael Vorenberg, a member of the committee, told The Herald he was pleased with the local support for the committee’s efforts. “It’s very nice to be recognized by a state organization, because this is about local affairs as much as national and international issues,” he said.