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Editorial: Placing the memorial

Two years ago, the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice recommended that the University build a public memorial to commemorate Brown and Rhode Island's ties to the slave trade. The Herald reported Friday that the University's Public Arts Committee is considering placing the memorial on or near a bridge that would span the Providence River and connect the extreme southwestern edge of Brown's campus to the new site of the medical school in the Jewelry District.

This idea is an ambitious one with the potential for profound symbolism. The memorial's location at the center of a bridge between Brown and downtown Providence would highlight the fact that both the University and the state share a common history with regard to slavery. And if placed over the water, the memorial would recall the ships that carried slaves to America and earned profits for some of the earliest members of the Brown Corporation.

Unfortunately, this proposed location has its drawbacks. Most Brown students only occasionally travel to that corner of campus, and even fewer visit the Jewelry District on a regular basis. Students who do go downtown are far more likely to use the bridge on College Street. 

Further, tours of Brown focus on the main campus area — the closest campus tours get to the proposed location is Keeney Quad, nowhere near the bridge under consideration. When the Medical School moves to its new location on Richmond Street, pedestrian traffic near the proposed site for the memorial might increase, but the vast majority of undergraduates would still rarely visit the area.

Perhaps most importantly, the area now known as the Quiet Green is the one part of the University that dates back to the time when the slave trade was still operative. Indeed, according to the Committee on Slavery and Justice's (2006) report, slaves played a role in the physical construction of University Hall. The Quiet Green would therefore also offer a powerful backdrop for a memorial, and the location would certainly receive ample pedestrian traffic. Jo-Ann Conklin, a member of the University's Public Arts committee, told the Board that the Quiet Green was indeed another location under consideration.

The Quiet Green location has one major disadvantage. Unlike the bridge location, a memorial on the Quiet Green would not immediately suggest Rhode Island's historical connection to the slave trade. This, however, seems like an especially important point to convey. The Committee on Slavery and Justice's report noted that for the entire history of the slave trade in America, about 60 percent of the slave trading voyages departed from Rhode Island.

Ideally, the memorial could represent the University and the state's common history without being placed in an area that students and visitors sparsely pass.

The Public Arts Committee has a number of competing considerations to weigh. All things equal, we believe the memorial should be placed prominently on the University's Main Campus, in a location where students and visitors pass by frequently. The Committee should only consider opting for the bridge location if it is confident that the design for the memorial is spectacular enough to attract substantial pedestrian traffic. The value of the bridge location also depends on the University's plans to develop the medical school area and form connections between that campus and the main campus.

As more discussion ensues, we encourage the Committee to look for creative ways to balance opportunities for symbolism, the goal of promoting historical awareness, and the fact of shared history between the University and the state.

Editorials are written by The Herald's editorial page board. Send comments to editorials (at) browndailyherald.com.




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