Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.

This weekend, the University began the 250th celebration of the College’s founding. At the center of the celebration, a 3 percent replica of University Hall stood poised to feed 1,400 attendees. There were speakers, pyrotechnics, buttons, bands and little spigots that filled cups with hot chocolate. And did I mention the cake, the 650-pound, 5-by-2-by-3-foot custom-built cake? Yet despite the celebration’s supposed focus on Brown’s history, this weekend failed to place center stage, let alone address, a long track record of historical negligence.

In 2003, then-President Ruth Simmons formed a committee to investigate the University’s involvement in slavery and the slave trade. The 2006 report from the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice showed the University’s deep involvement in “crimes against humanity.” A subsequent 2009 Report of Commissions on Memorials made recommendations to the University for a commemorative site, and in 2012, the Corporation selected Martin Puryear as the chief artist charged with designing the memorial.

Ask any Brown student about the above reports, meetings and decisions, and the responses will reveal a startling fact: The University has done little to help educate the student body beyond the original work and has instead approached this challenging topic strictly behind the scenes, as if these academic exercises themselves were proclamations of success.

The slavery and justice report states, “Our primary task was to examine the University’s historical entanglement with slavery and the slave trade and to … ‘provide factual information and critical perspectives to deepen understanding’ and enrich debate on an issue that had aroused great public passion but little constructive public dialogue.”

In 2012, The Herald published an article by Sydney Ember titled “The forgotten report.” She interviewed students, professors and the president, gathering information about the report and Brown community members’ response to it. But when Ember herself tried to procure a hard copy, she likened the experience to “a wild goose chase.” Most copies — nearly a thousand — are held off-site, four miles from Brown’s campus, though digital copies are freely accessible online. Ember quoted Professor of History Evelyn Hu-Dehart as saying, “This is a living document. But it’s dead.” Hu-Dehart served on the original steering committee.

Where did the University go wrong?

In almost every above instance, University officials barred undergraduates from partaking in the conversation.

What upsets me is not the celebration of Brown’s 250th, per se, but the framing of it — the missed opportunity for education, progressive communication and a productive means by which the University finally engages in a long-overdue public conversation. Even if the report were readily available and not stowed away in some off-site facility, even if the University had actually installed some statue or memorial by “Brown’s 250th anniversary celebration in 2014,” as the University’s website explicitly stated as its 2012 plan, it would not be sufficient. This issue demands active public consideration, not just a few Band-Aids that falsely allay the University’s guilt. What the University did and said it would do have not lived up to the timely standard that such an issue demands.

During the Friday night celebration, I saw no mention of  “Pero,” “Mary Young’s Negro Man,” “Earle’s Negro” and “Abraham,” the four black, enslaved men who helped to build College Edifice — now University Hall. Nor did I hear any undergraduate, let alone alum, discuss the effects the roughly 30 original Corporation members had on the future of Rhode Island, Providence and Brown by either owning or captaining slave ships. Instead, I heard six minutes and 54 seconds of oohs, ahs and cheers, 2,500 percussive pops and a plethora of individuals eating cake, completely ignorant of the implications of their celebration.

And worst of all, it’s not even their fault.

The University must stop its trend of isolative decision-making and involve the student body in the productive politics of future planning.

The University has continued its habit of bureaucratic secrecy and insulation and thus approached an educational opportunity tepidly and with a receptive student body at arm’s length. What remains is a community just as far from mending a scar as it was prior to the report. It is up to the University, in the coming year, to include the community in this discussion. One hopes the report is made public in hard form — bound, published and placed in our libraries for reading and conversation. A statue or memorial does not serve in place of conversation, though a necessary and commendable step it might be.

Simmons wrote in a 2004 Boston Globe op-ed that “understanding our history and suggesting how the full truth of that history can be incorporated into our common traditions will not be easy. But then, it doesn’t have to be.”

If only the student body could have taken part in the difficult conversations that make a celebration of Brown’s 250th worthwhile. If only the celebration could have been framed in such a way that acknowledged historical wrongdoing alongside our success.



Evan Sweren ’15 is in his third year at Brown.



Powered by SNworks Solutions by The State News
All Content © 2024 The Brown Daily Herald, Inc.