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Burying the Brown Brothers

Brown has finally wrestled with troubling questions about its past and influenced the national debate about slavery's legacy. But are our hearts in it?

First, there were whispers.

There were murmurs that Brown, one of the nation's wealthiest universities, owed much to the slave-trading dealings of its early founders. But for 200 years, Brown had kept quiet.

In her first years at the University, President Ruth Simmons had heard a lot of this sort of talk, and decided it was time to set the record straight. Brown made national headlines in 2004 when the New York Times broke word that Simmons had formed a committee to examine these historical ties to slavery.

Not everyone cared to ask why. The big news, rather, was that an Ivy League school was going to give "thoughtful inquiry" to the possibility of monetary reparations - a possibility that Simmons herself immediately dismissed in a Boston Globe op-ed. The committee, which sought from the beginning to stress its enthusiasm about discovering history rather than making it, had actually been around for almost a year before any reporters noticed.

"I didn't think it was controversial when it started," Simmons said.

In the following years, the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice undertook an astonishingly ambitious project of historical inquiry and reflection that engaged Brown's entire campus, and in October 2006 released a set of recommendations and a 106-page report. But Simmons and the committee members have disagreed about what, exactly, the point of that was.

As the buzz surrounding the release of the report subsided, Simmons was left with her biggest doubts about the end result of more than three years' work. "The greatest problem that I had with it," she said, "was that I thought it would not be read. That's a great shame."

Today, Brown is moving forward to implement the recommendations of the report, which include an academic initiative for the study of slavery and race and substantial resources for Providence schools. The question now is: What was the slavery and justice committee really for? It began with a question - what was Brown's connection to the slave trade? - that led to another - what do we do about it? Brown is now back on the right side of the truth, and it is looking to repair the damage done in the past. But might this be just as important? Shouldn't everyone care?

Simmons says, "Even if we did all of this, if we don't get to the hearts and minds of people so that they're prepared to act, then it's to no avail."

In the year and a half since the committee's report was published, the subject of slavery and its legacy has more or less dropped off the radar on Brown's campus. Not only has the committee disbanded, but - as James Campbell, the professor of Africana studies who chaired the committee, said - colleges have "four-year generations." Brown's freshman class this year was not here when the report was released.

Simmons has expressed disappointment that more students are not familiar with the report. She and members of the committee have disagreed over making the report available in a more accessible form, something Simmons said she would still like to do.

In the meantime, the committee's work has left Brown with both a great gift and an enormous burden. It has chronicled in great detail the University's complex web of involvement with the Rhode Island slave trade, explored historical injustices internationally and considered reparations efforts to counter those injustices. In the end, members of the committee submitted a detailed list of recommendations, advising the University to rewrite its official history, build a memorial to the legacy of slavery in Rhode Island, schedule an annual day of remembrance and strengthen recruitment of minority students.

Discussions of how to implement these recommendations are moving forward - slowly.

"I think I knew when I wrote the response that it was ambitious to start very quickly," Simmons said, though she added that she was pleased to see so many of the recommendations moving forward.

For Campbell, the legacy of this endeavor must be more than simply establishing the truth.

"If institutions and societies are truly going to hold themselves accountable ... they need also to think about what they can meaningfully and realistically do in the present," he said. Part of doing that, he added, is to "ensure that history is remembered against what are almost irresistible tendencies to deny and forget."

Simmons and the committee wanted not only to examine the legacy of slavery at Brown, but to spark a national discussion. "If this nation is ever to have a serious dialogue about slavery, Jim Crow and the bitter legacies they have bequeathed to us," the committee wrote in its report, "then universities must provide the leadership."

"I think what we wanted our study to show is that universities cannot stand for being places of public relations," Simmons said. "Our job is to examine everything."

Since Brown's committee started its work, other colleges and universities have engaged in various levels of discussion and action. Emory University launched the "Transforming Community Project" to examine its ties to slavery and discuss race. Faculty at the University of Maryland and the College of William and Mary have led studies of their schools and slavery. Even on the campuses of Harvard and Yale, there is growing discussion of what involvement those prestigious universities may have had in the slave trade.

Still, Brown has been the leader, said Alfred Brophy, a professor of law at the University of Alabama who has written a book about reparations. "Brown's investigation is a model against which everybody else will be judged," he said.

Brophy, who in 2004 got the University of Alabama to issue a formal apology for its role in slavery, added that "the vast majority of talk of university connections ... hasn't even begun yet."

Campbell, who will leave Brown for Stanford this summer, said such developments are inevitable. "I truly believe that, in one fashion or another, conversations like this are coming to most universities," he said.

But nothing is so "empty," Campbell said, as acknowledging past wrongs - and wringing our hands of them - without an attempt at corrective action.

That, the thinking goes, is what an institute for the study of slavery might do. "Bringing these issues into the center of the intellectual life of the University and keeping them there, that's what I take to be our responsibility," said Professor of Economics Glenn Loury, who chaired a committee that recently studied what a prospective center might look like.

More complicated is how to go about making amends for Brown's past wrongs. In response to the committee's recommendations, the University has set out to raise $10 million for the city's schools. It will waive tuition for master's students in education who commit to working with local schools. It has received a $5.75 million gift to aid students from sub-Saharan Africa. Such actions may not be perfect or complete, but they do constitute an attempt at corrective action. As the committee wrote in its report, "Retrospective justice is a messy and imperfect business."

Brown has been a model for all universities with entangled histories, opening the door for the debate about slavery's legacy to take place. "In a sense, we gave people permission to talk about this subject in a dignified and non-sensationalized manner," Simmons said. "I think most people on the campus still don't understand how much (the report) has done, nor do they understand how much positive attention it's attracted around the world."

The committee has succeeded in one thing. Those who once whispered about the slave labor that helped build University Hall now praise Brown for bravely facing up to its past. But the coming years will show if this undertaking is to amount to anything more than a historical exercise.


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