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University News

Slavery’s past confronted at Brown, Harvard

Contributing Writer
Monday, April 11, 2011

Ignoring the convention of separating personal stories from academic discourse, President Ruth Simmons shared her connection to slavery as the great-granddaughter of slaves in an emotional keynote address that kicked off this weekend’s “Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development” conference Thursday in Salomon 101.

The conference — which highlighted the North’s connections with slavery and was hosted by Brown and Harvard — drew students, community members and scholars from around the country.

“Ideas that have been flowing back and forth are radical in their potential to re-define history,” said Seth Rockman, associate professor of history.

Ronald Bailey, professor emeritus at Northeastern University, addressed Simmons directly when he said at the conference, “I’ve been waiting for a college president to do this for 30 years, and you stepped forward.” Four years ago, the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, convened by Simmons, published findings that linked the University to its own slavery-ridden history. This weekend, she opened up about her own history.

“Slavery is not just about the history of one region but really the history of the nation as a whole,” added Sven Beckert, a professor of history at Harvard, who said Simmons inspired him to teach a course titled “Harvard and Slavery.”

The conference examined ways in which northern textile industries profited from the reduced cost of cotton due to slave labor and also emphasized that early donors who contributed to Brown and Harvard profited from slavery. Industries in the North also provided the timber and supplies used to fund slave trading and plantation practices. “These buildings we have around us and the wealth that built New England partly derived from slave labor,” Peter Wirzbicki, a New York University graduate student said  as he stood and looked around Alumnae Hall.  

The history is as tangible in Harvard’s neighborhood as on Brown’s campus.  

“If you look down at Boston Symphony Hall on Huntington Avenue and universities, a lot of funds they used to do that came out of processes  in which the labor of African-American people were exploited around the process of cotton picking,” Bailey said.

Some professors also spoke of slavery as a contemporary phenomenon, tying it to modern-day human trafficking, industrial labor and health care reform.  

“In school, we were taught a lie — that it was the evil Southerners versus the virtuous Northerners,” said Bob Burke, creator of the Independence Trail in Boston. But “the wealth of Providence came about from lower labor costs owing to slavery.”

Harvard graduate student Jeremy Zallen said the conference was important because “universities like Brown and Harvard that are geographically in New England and have disassociated themselves from slavery are taking that on and investigating their own connections to slavery.”

“My parents toiled in the cotton fields at the behest of plantation owners,” Burke said. “I’m willing to take the gloves off, I’m willing to fight for this issue.”

“It’s interesting to hear about slavery and its history and its contemporary implications,” said Barbara Andrews, director of education at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. “But I wonder what they do with it.” She said she will help spread the conference’s message beyond New England.

Rockman, who will teach HIST 1840: “Capitalism, Slavery and the Economy of Early America” this fall, said “the basic work of discussion remains to be done. We’re at the starting point of this. We need more people to go to more archives and find out more things. It is as simple as digging to find out all the ways slavery insinuated itself in every aspect of the American experience.”

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