Paxson: Brown at 250: Linking generations through liberal education

Guest Columnist
Friday, September 26, 2014

This weekend, we will continue the “Imagine 250+” celebration that began last March and will run through Commencement in May 2015. I look forward to joining students, faculty members, staff members and 1,500 visiting alums at faculty and alum panels, the football game where we will play — and beat! — Harvard, post-game fireworks, a student production of “Sweeney Todd” directed by Trinity Rep’s artistic director Curt Columbus and a festival on Thayer Street.

These events, together with the campus tours, lab demonstrations and gallery exhibits, will recognize the accomplishments of Brunonians over a span of two and a half centuries. During this weekend and beyond, we will celebrate our aspiration to continue making a positive difference in the world through innovative scholarship and outstanding liberal education that prepares students to “discharge the offices of life with usefulness and reputation.”

The weekend also allows us to consider challenging aspects of our past. On Saturday at 3 p.m., we will dedicate Brown’s Slavery Memorial on the Quiet Green. This work, by artist Martin Puryear, followed from a recommendation included in Brown’s 2006 Report on Slavery and Justice for the University to create “a slave trade memorial to recognize its relationship to the transatlantic trade and the importance of this traffic in the history of Rhode Island.”  This recommendation is one of many that Brown has acted on since the report was published, including instituting a Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice — which will be dedicated next month — supporting the educational ambitions of students in the Providence public schools, expanding the diversity of our student body and renewing our commitment to enhance the diversity of our faculty and staff.

The sculpture, with its simple iron chain of bondage that seems to extend from beneath the Green, reminds us that the high ideals of Brown’s founders were marred by blindness to the great injustice of slavery that was woven into the fabric of New England life in the 18th century. Here on this campus, the very work of building University Hall, only steps from the memorial, was performed in part by enslaved African-Americans. Brown’s financial well-being was intimately tied to slavery in all of its aspects. Southern slave owners contributed to the new college in its early days, and Northern merchants and investors who supported the college profited both directly and indirectly from slavery and the slave trade.

Though it is important to recollect Brown’s roots, it is equally important to recognize the fact that blindness to injustice need not be permanent — and that, in fact, we have a shared responsibility to see and address injustice. The lives and actions of men and women who have graduated from Brown demonstrate how our emphasis on tolerance, open inquiry and service to society has helped move this country in a positive direction.

Of the countless stories of remarkable Brown alums, that of Inman Page, class of 1877, stands out. Page was born into slavery. He came to Rhode Island as a transfer student from Howard University and became one of the first two known African-Americans to graduate from Brown. He was also was chosen by his peers to give the Commencement oration. Page dedicated his life to the education of blacks and over the course of his career served in Oklahoma, Missouri and Tennessee as president of three different colleges and the head of a high school.

Page’s story has a modern twist that demonstrates the ripple effects that come from a life of usefulness and reputation. It happens that one of Page’s students in Oklahoma was a very young Ralph Ellison, who went on to write “The Invisible Man,” a classic American novel that explored racism and identity in the 20th century. I have vivid recollections of reading this book as a first-year college student and being struck by Ellison’s ability to use irony and wit to portray the insidious effects of prejudice and stereotyping on the human spirit.

Almost exactly 35 years ago, a 65-year-old Ellison was invited to Brown for a festival honoring his life’s work. During the festival, he gave a tribute to Page that was later published in a 1986 collection of essays titled “Going to the Territory.” It is a remarkable speech. At one point, Ellison wonders out loud about how he came to find himself speaking to students about the impact Page had on his life, at the very college that had such a large impact on Page as a young man. His answer:

“Such occasions are made possible because ideas and ideals retain their vitality by being communicated from concerned individuals to other (and sometimes resistant) individuals. And when these ideas and ideals succeed in finding embodiment in receptive personalities they become linkages which have the power to shape obscure destinies in unexpected ways.”

Ellison’s words remind us of the potential for a liberal education to link humans together by transmitting ideas and ideals from generation to generation. As we welcome alums back to our campus this weekend for Brown’s 250th, and consider Brown’s past and future, this idea is well worth celebrating.

Christina Paxson is president of the University and can be reached at

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  1. Christina Paxson, This is a lot of talk. Just stop aiding and abetting rapists among Brown University students. And go learn what a strategic plan is like. In other words, if you cannot stop being a flake, you can at least leave.

  2. paxson lover class of 2014 says:

    Inman Page isn’t your fưcking prop to convince people you’re swell.

    Also beat Harvard!! Seriously wtf is this

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