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Op-eds, Opinions

Carroll ’21 and Allums ’21: The case for reparations at Brown University

By and
Opinions Editor and Op-ed Contributor
Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Right now, Brown undergraduates are voting on historic referenda that call upon the University to identify the descendants of slaves it harmed during its involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and to provide reparations to those identified descendants.

In 2003, then-Brown University President Ruth Simmons appointed the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, which was charged to investigate and prepare a report about the University’s historical relationship to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. The final report includes a number of notable findings. University Hall, Brown’s oldest building, was built by a group that included enslaved workers, according to construction records. The school’s first president, Reverend James Manning, arrived in Rhode Island accompanied by a personal slave. “Many of the assets that underwrote the University’s creation and growth derived, directly and indirectly, from slavery and the slave trade,” the report writes. The Brown family of Providence, the University’s namesake, owned slaves and sent several slave ships to the coast of Africa, including the first-ever to set sail from Providence.

Still, neither the Steering Committee’s original mandate from its charge nor its ultimate report called for any efforts to identify the descendants of slaves connected to the University, let alone provide direct monetary reparations. The final section of the report lists recommendations for the University to make amends, but notably rejects the community-wide calls, including those of reparations experts, to earmark scholarships for African-American students as a form of restitution.

It is sadly no surprise that the University received immense racist backlash for its mere academic study and publication of the report. During an interview with Conservative Talk Radio based in Virginia, Slavery and Justice Committee Chair Professor James Campbell was shocked to be attacked by callers who accused Brown of running a “black money grab” by “namby pamby liberals.” Some alumni additionally threatened Brown that they would no longer donate to the school if it would be “writing cheques to blacks.” As the first-ever Black president of an Ivy League school, Ruth Simmons in particular was thrust under harsh scrutiny as a Black woman leader pioneering the study of slavery at her university. But the University should not be deterred by fear of facing backlash similar to what it received when it released the report nearly two decades ago — and it should do now what it should have long ago.

Today is a different day. This year, the Undergraduate Council of Students passed a resolution calling upon the University to “make all possible efforts to identify the descendants of enslaved Africans who were entangled with and/or afflicted by the University.” This search will include the descendants of the slaves who built the University, who were owned, trafficked or sold by the Brown family and who were owned by University administrators and benefactors. The resolution additionally calls upon the University to provide preferential admissions to any identified descendants and provide reparations, in line with other institutions of higher education including Georgetown University, Virginia Theological Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary — all of which were also entangled in the slave trade. 

Should a majority of students vote to approve the referenda, thereby demonstrating that the community’s values align with those presented in the resolution, the University must make a plan to provide monetary disbursements to the identified descendants of slavery. The University has marshaled its financial commitment to Providence public schools as evidence of restitution. However, this effort falls short as a means to make amends for the University’s wealth gained from the slave trade. While the University undoubtedly owes a debt to Providence, just 17 percent of its public school students are Black, and it is uncertain how many of those students are descendants of slavery let alone how many descend from the slaves harmed directly by the University.

Ultimately, Brown’s professed mission to atone for its history with the slave trade will have no tangible, just and equitable impact if descendants of slavery do not receive on behalf of their ancestors the debts owed to them for forced, unpaid labor. The average Black family in America possesses just one-tenth of the wealth of a typical white family. This is not an artifact of a bygone era, but rather the result of evolving forms of structural racism that have perpetuated and exacerbated the consequences of slavery. While the Brown family, the University and its benefactors were enriching themselves from slavery, they were denying generations of Black Americans the opportunity to accrue wealth and achieve a better life for their families. The University’s prosperity comes as a direct result of the oppression of Black Americans.

Therefore, in the context of Brown, reparations are not an unfair advantage or a form of unfounded preferential treatment; they are a means to recompense the setbacks that descendants of slavery contend with in the 21st century.

UCS President Jason Carroll ’21 and Opinions editor Jordan Allums ’21 can be reached at jason_carroll@brown.edu and jordan_allums@brown.edu. Authors’ opinions are their own. The Descendants of Slavery Referenda are open now and will continue until March 26th, 2021 at 12 p.m. EST. The authors encourage undergraduates to vote “YES” on both referenda.

Correction: A previous version of this op-ed’s byline identified Allums as an op-ed contributor. In fact, she is an opinions editor. The Herald regrets the error.

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