Columns

Carty ’15: Slavery of the past, inherited in the present

By
Guest Columnist

Almost exactly 250 years ago today, a slave ship named Sally departed Providence for West Africa. Funded by Nicholas Brown and Company, the Sally sailed east, acquired the first of her 196 captives on Nov. 10, suppressed an uprising in August and reached the West Indies sometime during the fall of 1765. During the same month that the Sally departed Providence, 250 years ago this September, the inaugural meeting of the Corporation of the College of Rhode Island was held in Newport. Forty years later, that college would be renamed Brown University because of a donation by the aforementioned Brown family.

In Brown’s 250th year, it is as important to remember the Sally, one salient example of the many thousands of vessels, plantations, owners and laws that made up American slavery, as it is to recall that first meeting of the Corporation — the beginning of the University we hold so dear. We need to remember both of these things together — and put them in tension with each other — because to do anything else is dishonest.

Brown University was founded on ideals of religious tolerance and diversity, and for the purpose of educating its students in a way that gave them “usefulness and reputation,” as Brown’s mission states. At the same time, Brown was founded and funded by men who were either complicit in or active supporters of a regime of chattel slavery that “permeated every aspect of social and economic life in Rhode Island,” to quote the text inscribed onto the Slavery Memorial that President Christina Paxson is dedicating this weekend. These facts of Brown’s founding are both true. To value the former without recalling the latter is to ignore something important: Brown was built on slavery.

University Hall was built by enslaved laborers. The University was funded, in a number of ways, by profits from the slave trade. John Brown, financier of countless instances of enslavement through his business, served as the University’s treasurer for years, and the college was named for a family whose most salient attribute was its business of funding slave-trading.

The only thing that I’m arguing for is memory — honest, unblinking acknowledgement of the past. Too many Americans are afflicted by a certain kind of American exceptionalism that involves ignoring the genocide, plunder and moral failures of our nation’s past. Ta-Nehisi Coates has called this “patriotism a la carte.”

Not only is this “a la carte” mentality dishonest, it has concrete effects. Past is not merely prologue. Its consequences live on with us. Forgetting the injustices of the past makes us blind to their effects in the present.

And there’s something else, too, about remembering the ugly past. As members of a family, community or nation, we inherit the decisions of our ancestors. Just as we might inherit the passed-down wealth of our great-grandparents, so do we inherit the effects of the United States’ status as a wealthy, developed nation. We don’t necessarily deserve these things — it’s not like we did anything to merit these privileges. But they are still ours. We still benefit from them. And this fact of inheritance holds across the board. Just as we might receive wealth by nature of our birthplace, so are we the recipients of our ancestors’ faults. I didn’t choose to pass the Indian Removal Act of 1830, and I didn’t veto the renewal of the Freedman’s Bureau in 1866. But my country did, and I am of my country. I am part of America, and America is everlasting. Her decisions ripple and live on, and as a citizen, I am a partial owner of all that she is.

It is the same with Brown. We inherit everything from the Van Wickle Gates to the New Curriculum — we are partners in the University’s project. And the project of the University was built on slavery. Today it is so much more, and we should feel pride in that. But to feel pride for the great bits of the past without feeling sorrow for the failures is to engage in school pride “a la carte.”

What this fact of inheritance obligates is an open question. We all feel differently about what we should do to repair the evils of the past and present. But before we do that, we need to be honest about what our past is, because Brown’s past is intimately related to her present.

This Saturday, Paxson and the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice will be dedicating Brown’s newest memorial — a memorial to the University’s role in slavery and the slave trade. It is a solemn, beautiful monument, and the text of the plaque is unflinching. The final sentence reads, “Brown University was a beneficiary of this trade.”

If you are proud to be a Brown student, if you were overjoyed at your admission, if you profess to care about this school’s future, I entreat you to attend this dedication. Past is more than prologue. Brown was founded on slavery. And we need to be honest about these facts. Paying this memorial the respect it is due is an important means of doing so.

 

Kevin Carty ’15 is a senior studying political theory. He can be followed @Politicarty and emailed at kevin_carty@brown.edu.

  • Alum

    Much proud, so memory. wow.

  • ’15

    “Brown University was a beneficiary of this trade.”

    such an innocuous sentence out of context, yet these eight words carry so much meaning and horror and pain and history and (dare I say) hope.

    importantly, here are the event details—–

    Dedication of a Slavery Memorial
    Saturday, September 27, 2014
    3:00-5:00 PM
    Front Green North
    1-21 Prospect Street

  • Thomas Carty

    In St. Croix in the US Virgin Island, there is a town called Cartys, a Cartys Point and such, as well as Granard, Longford and Corn Hill.

    We are Cartys of Longford, Granard and Corn Hill in Ireland, and I am tryin to trace the origions of how theres towns (orignally plantations) got its name.

    Likewise Im horrified by the slave trade and our involvement in it. It wasnt just the English, it was the Irish too.

    http://www.writingsinrhyme.com/index.php/good-boys-and-other-blaggards/ is ana rticle of mine on it…