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Brown changes official name to remove 'Plantations'

At Aug. 19 meeting, Corporation voted unanimously to remove 'in Providence in the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations' from University’s legal name

The University changed its official name from “Brown University in Providence in the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” to “Brown University,” according to a letter from President Christina Paxson P’19, Provost Richard Locke P'18 and Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Barbara Chernow '79 released Sept. 1. 

The change was unanimously approved by the Corporation in a vote on Aug. 19, the letter noted. 

“The word ‘plantation’ did not carry connotations of slavery in 1636, when the colony of Providence Plantations was established by Roger Williams,” Paxson, Locke and Chernow wrote. “Over time, however, the word has come to conjure painful reminders of one of the ugliest times in our nation’s history.”

Following its colonial founding, slavery did become a large part of Rhode Island’s economy into to the mid-1700s, with major slave trading ports at Newport and Bristol, according to the Rhode Island Historical Society. And slavery was not abolished completely in the state until the passage of a gradual emancipation act by the state legislature in 1784. 

Brown also played a role in that dark history, which is detailed in the University Steering Committe on Slavery and Justice 2006 report. Brown’s oldest building, University Hall, was built with slave labor and much of the money raised for the University’s first endowment by Hezekiah Smith most likely originated from his dealings in the slave trade or plantations using slave labor. 

The University “has long sought to address the unjust impacts of systemic racism on campus and provide pathways to equity and access by contributing to education, research and service, and ensuring that all members of the Brown community are valued and respected,” the letter announcing the name change states. “While we have made meaningful progress in some regards, it is clear that substantial work remains.”

The letter also detailed updates and additions to some initiatives first noted in a June 15 community-wide email from Paxson, including plans to form a task force on anti-Black racism, establishing the Addressing Systemic Racism Fund, launching a virtual conversation series to “explore various facets of race in America,” as well as reshaping undergraduate recruitment to improve equity in admissions, establishing a new oversight committee for funding Providence public schools and conducting an external review of the Department of Public Safety. 

The name change follows Gov. Gina Raimondo’s June executive order removing the word “Plantations” from official government correspondence and websites. In order to officially change the state’s name from the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations to the State of Rhode Island, citizens will need to approve an amendment to the state constitution on the ballot in November. 

Though the University’s full name was rarely used, it did appear in some legal transactions. This change is one part of the University’s commitment to “confront anti-Black racism,” according to the letter. 

When Brown’s charter was originally written in 1764, the University was called Rhode Island College, but with the intention of later naming it after a “most distinguished benefactor,” according to Encyclopedia Brunoniana. It was renamed Brown University in Providence in the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in 1804 after Nicholas Brown, an abolitionist,  donated $5,000 to the school. 

The University’s name will not be amended in the charter since it “is primarily a historical document … rather than a living one,” wrote University Spokesman Brian Clark in an email to The Herald. 

Instead, the change has been noted in a footnote on page seven of the charter stating that “the Corporation voted to amend the vote taken on September 6, 1804, by removing the words ‘in Providence in the State of Rhode Island, and Providence Plantations,’ and affirming that the University shall be called and known from that date forward by the name of Brown University.” 

Amendments to the University charter are rarely made, with the most recent changes in 1863, 1926 and 1942, Clark wrote. University updates are instead added as footnotes or annotations. The name change in 1804 was also added as a footnote, and the official name is only used in later amendments to the charter.

Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous versions of this article stated that Brown University was named after Nicholas Brown Sr., a slave trader and owner, but the University was actually named after Nicholas Brown Jr., an abolitionist. The Herald regrets the error.



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