Columns, Opinions

Lehrer-Small ’20: Revisiting the Slavery and Justice Report

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, October 16, 2019

In October 2006, a committee made up of faculty members, undergraduate students, graduate students and administrators presented a report to then-University President Ruth Simmons. The report, entitled Slavery and Justice, detailed the University’s historical relationship to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. At the time, the investigation — and the University’s formal response delivered the following spring — were the first major efforts by a university to address its complicity in the institution of slavery. The report proposed a number of recommendations as steps toward justice. Now, over a decade later, what progress has the University made?

The short answer is that Brown has followed through on some of its commitments, but has let others fall to the wayside.

The longer answer is that most institutional changes are multi-layered and involve more gray area than black or white. It can be hard to evaluate exactly how much progress Brown has made — and to evaluate whether that progress is “enough.” I don’t aim to give a comprehensive evaluation of Brown’s response to the Slavery and Justice report. Instead, I hope to start a conversation that collectively considers Brown’s obligations and follow-through. Students and faculty should hold our University accountable to its commitments made in the wake of the Slavery and Justice report.

This piece summarizes some key findings of the report, reviews the central commitments our University made in its 2007 response and evaluates the actions Brown has taken to follow through.

For many students, the body of the Slavery and Justice report may be eye-opening. Students ought to know some of the complicated history of their institution.

The report details Rhode Island’s, and Brown University’s, economic dependence on the slave trade. For much of the 18th century, sixty percent— and in some years more than ninety percent —  of North American slave trading voyages came from tiny Rhode Island. In 1764, the year that Brown University was founded, Rhode Island had more than thirty operational distilleries producing rum that was exchanged for captives in West Africa as a part of the infamous “triangle trade.” Those in the state who didn’t work directly in the slave trade often still contributed to it.

The report shows that as a part of the Rhode Island economy, Brown University profited from the slave trade. It received gifts from individuals who had made their fortune through the slave trade, and at least four enslaved men labored to build Brown’s first building, University Hall.

Confronted with this information, what did the University do? In its formal response, Brown committed to twelve action steps. Here are six of the key commitments they made, along with the actions I see that the University has or has not taken to uphold them.Some promises have been upheld, others have lacked follow-through:

1) The University “will undertake a major research and teaching initiative on slavery and justice.”

In 2012, Brown opened the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. The CSSJ promotes research into the links between slavery and present-day phenomena such as mass incarceration and de facto segregation in public schools. It hosts events on campus, sponsors research efforts by faculty and students and coordinates exhibits with museums across the world. This work is invaluable. The CSSJ should be proud of its contributions and should continue to uphold its mission.

2) “The University will provide free tuition to as many as 10 admitted graduate students per year who, after successful completion of a master’s degree in teaching or a master’s degree in urban education policy, agree to serve in Providence-areas schools or surrounding area schools for a minimum of three years.”

The Urban Education Fellows Program offers loan forgiveness to graduate students in the Urban Education Policy program and for teachers in the MAT program in return for a commitment to work for three consecutive years in the Providence urban core after graduation. This option helps train effective educators and incentivizes them to stay in Providence. With the Urban Education Fellows program, Brown followed through on its original commitment. Scaling up this program would only increase its impact.

3) “The University will disseminate the report and make it accessible to anyone … free of charge.”

The Slavery and Justice report is available for free online. But distribution of this report has fallen short of the committee’s vision. The original report recommends that the University “circulate (the report) widely among students” and “include discussion of the University’s historical relationship to slavery as a normal part of freshman orientation.” Many Brown students graduate without being aware of the report’s existence, and that should change.

4) The University will work with city and state officials “to determine how this history should be memorialized in the state, city and on College Hill.”

In 2014, the University erected the “Slavery Memorial,” a sculpture by Martin Puryear, on the northern corner of the Quiet Green. A plaque recognizes that “Brown University was a beneficiary of (the slave) trade.” This physical monument memorializes Brown’s complicated past. But it is accessible only to those who enter campus. Thus, Brown has made concrete steps toward memorialization, but must still do more.

5) The University will “maintain high ethical standards in investments and gifts.”

In spring 2017, students called for divestment from Citizen’s Bank for its support of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies agreed to address the issue the following fall. There is no mention in ACCRIP’s 2017-2018 Annual Report about this issue. Separately, the committee chose to take no action on Brown ACLU’s request to divest from holdings in private prisons. This lack of response to student-brought ethical concerns appears to represent nothing other than business as usual in Brown’s investments.

6) “The University will raise a permanent endowment in the amount of $10 million to establish a Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence.”

Brown has failed to follow through on this commitment. Twelve years later, the fund has raised only $1.9 million. Though the University has explained that they contribute more to the public school district per year than the endowment would have provided annually, a recent Boston Globe article pointed out that many of these contributions pre-dated the promise of a $10 million fund. Here too, Brown must do more to maintain its commitment.

In actively recognizing its historical ties to slavery with the original Slavery and Justice report, Brown took an important step. But the report was only a start. The University has had significant successes, but still has work to do. Students must understand the commitments our University has made. Only then can we push Brown administrators to fully follow through. Where the University has already reached its goals, it’s on us to ask “what’s next?”

Asher Lehrer-Small ’20 can be reached at asher_lehrer-small@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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