First-years received their first formal exposure to the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice Friday afternoon during their third class meeting, titled "Uncovering Our Past: Brown University and the Slave Trade."
One of four mandatory sessions held for first-years each fall, the third class meeting is traditionally intended to "introduce diversity issues in a wide range of ways" to those new to Brown, including "topics that are not everyday, (involving) human complexity, different points of view," Brenda Allen, associate provost and director of institutional diversity, told The Herald.
"What better way to address diversity than to talk about slavery in America and Brown's role in it?" she said.
Allen, a member of the slavery and justice committee, offered opening remarks and introduced Friday's main speaker, James Campbell, associate professor of Africana studies and the committee's chair.
According to the committee's Web site, President Ruth Simmons charged its members in 2003 "to organize academic events and activities that might help the nation and the Brown community think deeply, seriously, and rigorously about the questions raised" by the national debate over slavery and reparations.
Since its inception, the committee, which is scheduled to release its report sometime this fall, has sponsored over 30 events and hosted over 100 speakers.
The programming has included topics as diverse as apartheid in South Africa, slavery and its legacy in New England, the international human trafficking trade and a presentation last spring from a woman who was formerly a slave in Beirut, Lebanon.
In a spring 2004 article, the New York Times questioned Simmons' motives and suggested that monetary reparations would ultimately be part of the committee's recommendations, a notion Simmons later denied in a Boston Globe editorial.
Campbell expects the release of the committee's report to garner national media attention. First-years may have been largely unfamiliar with the committee and its work prior to Friday's meeting, which served to "bring them up to speed, give a little background information to participate in what we hope will be a campus-wide discussion," Campbell said.
"(Class Meeting III) is trying to give some background about both the history of the institution of which (first-years) are now a part, and also to suggest some of the kinds of historical, political, legal and moral questions that arise in any effort to confront legacies of historical injustice," Campbell said.
Sheilah Coleman, interim assistant dean of the College, said even those familiar with the committee's work are eager to hear about its progress.
"So many of us are just so curious to hear more about what the committee has been doing ourselves - it's a great model for being willing to look at one's own history as an institution," said Coleman, who helped coordinate Orientation activities this year.
During his presentation, Campbell showed a sampling of the hundreds of letters he has received since the committee's announcement, ranging from praise to one angry note that read, "Can your ignorant research, and can Ruth Simmons, too."
"The very fervor of the response suggests that the case isn't closed at all" when it comes to national discussions of slavery, Campbell said.
He mentioned the 2004 Times article, warning students of a national tendency to get "short-circuited" on the "narrow questions of monetary reparations" and ignore more complicated aspects of the issue.
Campbell went on to explain in part the role of slavery during the University's beginnings. A grandfather clock that stands in the Office of the Dean of the College once belonged to Captain Esek Hopkins, one of the first members of the Brown Corporation. Hopkins was captain of the ship "Sally" during a 1764 slaving voyage that was funded by the four Brown brothers and resulted in the deaths of over 100 Africans. His ship was one of over 1,000 slaving ships that left from ports in Rhode Island during the 1700s.
One of the Brown brothers, John, became one of the state's most vocal proponents of the slave trade while serving as the University's treasurer. He would be known long after his death for claiming there was "no more wrong in bringing off a cargo of slaves than in bringing off a cargo of jackasses."
But the brothers differed in their views on slavery, a fact that put a strain on their relationships. John's brother, Moses, founded the Providence Abolition Society and freed all his slaves with the promise of land and formal education for their children. Moses also fought for the more stringent enforcement of anti-slave trading laws and attempted to put John in jail for evading those laws.
The University was officially named for the son of another Brown brother, Nicholas. Nicholas Brown Jr., who was an abolitionist and owned no slaves, donated $5,000 to the University toward the endowment of a professorship in 1804, one year after John Brown died in his College Hill home. Nicholas Jr., who later succeeded his uncle as treasurer of the University and whose donations to the school ultimately totaled near $160,000, was a member of his uncle Moses' abolitionist society.
Campbell related the quarrel among the brothers to the contemporary debate.
"The struggle between brothers, the broader struggle in the heritage of this nation, is now yours, too," Campbell told first-years. "How do we reconcile those aspects (of our history) that are gracious and beautiful with those that (evoke) horror and shame?"
Campbell continued: "(The slavery and justice committee) is one institution's pledge to embody and reflect upon that question," He concluded. "I welcome you to that conversation."
During a question-and-answer session that followed, Campbell answered general questions but revealed almost nothing about the contents of the report, encouraging students to read it in its entirety when it comes out later this semester.
Several first-years reacted positively to Campbell's presentation.
"I'm looking forward to hearing more about (the committee) now," said Stephen DeLucia '10. "It's very encouraging to know Brown is an institution that chooses not to close the book (on slavery). It says a lot about what our class is looking for (in the University)," he added.
Robert Mustacchi '10 said he plans to read the report. "It'll be interesting to see what they actually end up recommending, because there wasn't much discussion of this in high school," he said.