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'Our work is just beginning': the Slavery and Justice Report at 15 years

Slavery and Justice Report takes on new life at its 15th anniversary as First Readings selection for second year

Fifteen years ago, Brown became one of the first universities to publicly analyze and acknowledge its historical ties to slavery with the 2006 release of the Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice.

The Steering Committee — appointed in 2003 by former University President Ruth J. Simmons — was charged with investigating Brown’s historical connection to slavery and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Committee published the report detailing the findings of its investigation three years later. 

Now 15 years since the report’s initial publication, the work completed by the Committee in 2006 has been revived as a point of conversation after the University selected the report as the First Reading for 2020 and 2021. 

“A bracing dose of truth”: Brown examines its connection to slavery

The Committee was first established in 2003 around the time the Reparations Coordinating Committee, a group co-chaired by Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree, began to push for universities and other institutions that perpetuated or were involved in slavery to provide reparations, Simmons told The Herald.

The Reparations Coordinating Committee filed a series of class-action lawsuits, in which Brown, Harvard and Yale were named as “probable targets,” said James Campbell, chair of the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, former professor at Brown and a current professor at Stanford University. 

With growing publicity, as president, Simmons decided that it was time to investigate Brown’s historical involvement with slavery and the slave trade. “People were asking, ‘Well, is this true? Does Brown have such a history?’” Simmons said. 

Simmons began to ask questions about Brown’s relation to the slave trade, but she was unable to find much information. “Everybody I went to denied that there was any connection between the founding of Brown and the slave trade,” she said. 

At the time the report was issued, “no other university had committed itself to investigating and disclosing its relationship to slavery and the slave trade,” Campbell said. 

The general consensus among universities and the public was “that we should ‘let sleeping dogs lie,’” Simmons said. There was a hope that by ignoring and avoiding the subject, universities and other institutions could not only avoid being named in litigation, but also avoid any historical investigations, which they believed “would create more division” in an already divisive atmosphere, she added. 

In the past, as universities, “we’ve hidden things from the public, we’ve made bargains that we should not have made, we have colluded improperly in ways that do not serve the community,” Simmons said. One of the guiding principles of the report was really to provide a model for truth-seeking — “the process that we can undertake to … deal with the most divisive and damaging questions,” Simmons said. 

The initial response to the report was incredibly mixed, garnering public debate and the publication of editorials, Campbell said. But, 15 years later, the “truth-seeking” process “has become virtually ubiquitous,” Simmons said. 

There are now around 100 institutions who have followed a similar process, many of which have credited, collaborated and been inspired by Brown’s report, according to Campbell. 

“The report is an enlightening document — a bracing dose of truth for those who claim not to know Brown's history,” wrote Matthew Guterl, professor of Africana Studies, American Studies and Ethnic Studies and member of the First Readings selection committee, in an email to The Herald. “It is often said that Brown was not built to support students of color, first generation students, women and others. The report reveals the grim facts behind this statement.” 

“We need to do more”: Incorporating Brown’s history into education

The report is just as, if not more, important today than it was 15 years ago, according to Simmons.  “Fissures have been exposed in recent events that suggest that we are far from being able to deal with these issues in a constructive way,” Simmons said. “The fact that people remain confused, angry and so forth about the discussion of these issues is testament enough that we need to do more.” 

As part of the 2006 report, the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice made several recommendations for reparative measures to be taken by the University. These included the creation of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, installing a slave trade memorial, expanding opportunities for those continually disadvantaged by the legacy of the slave trade and supporting education for the broader Rhode Island community.

The Report also specifically put forward a “recommendation to ‘include discussion of the University’s historical relationship with slavery as a normal part of freshman orientation,’” said Sarah Evelyn, director of Academic Engagement and member of the First Readings selection committee. 

While the report was included in first-year orientation as the First Reading in 2007 and 2008, it would be over another decade until it was reincorporated, Campbell said.

Each year, the First Readings selection committee receives about 80 to 120 reading nominations from the Brown community, said Gary Wessel, professor of biology and First Readings selection committee member. 

In fall 2019, two dozen students nominated the report for the First Reading, according to Dean of the College Rashid Zia ’01.

​​Given that “the national context that fall was focused on race, repair, justice and memorializations, it seemed critical to us to consider this report in the context of our moment,” Guterl wrote.

Thus, the report was selected in 2020 and again in 2021 “as part of a two-year pilot to plan for the Report’s more formal integration into future Orientations,” Zia wrote in an email to The Herald. 

Students rediscover, reflect on the report

In response to news of the report’s assignment as the First Reading, many students and faculty emphasized the importance of students learning Brown’s history.

“I’m delighted a new generation of students is rediscovering it,” Campbell said. “What is our history? Who are we? What responsibilities do we inherit in the present in the light of what we now understand about our history? Those questions are as pertinent today as they were when we wrote the report.”

Some students found the report to be very informative for their first year at Brown.

Benicio Beatty ’25 found the report to be “both relevant and interesting.” 

“Looking at the studies they did, the people they talked to, the questions they posed and ultimately their findings … is a testament to Brown’s work that they’ve done so far and the work that they’re promising to do in the future in regards … to being an antiracist institution,” Beatty said. 

Other students had their perception of the University altered by the report’s contents. 

“I thought it was very impactful,” said Elijah Dahunsi ’25. “In a sense, it made me view Brown as less of a static institution and more of a living institution.”

Simmons hopes that first-year students will take away an understanding of the truth-seeking process. “As educated human beings, what we try to do is to look at the facts, we try to discern what those facts tell us, we try to make use of what we learn and we disseminate what we have learned,” she said. “I want for people to see that fear of truth-telling is not productive.”

Data taken from the summer 2021 digital interactive version of the report, which allowed readers to highlight and annotate the text, also suggested high levels of student engagement. By the end of summer, the digital report received 1,100 unique visitors, with an average visit length of almost three hours, Evelyn said. 

Despite high levels of recorded engagement and acknowledgement of the importance of the report, not all students have the same experience reading the report. 

“I’ve heard kind of mixed things,” said Peter Zubiago ’22, member of the First Readings selection committee. Some people expressed to him that the report “really achieves the goals of introducing people to Brown and Brown’s complicity in the slave trade,” he added. “I’ve also heard from some BIPOC students that there's no real reason for them to read it because they feel like they have experienced that and lived that enough.”

Despite acknowledging Brown’s history, “it’s hard to say that we’ve done a lot as a university to grapple with the things we’re bringing up and publishing about ourselves,” Zubiago added. 

“From acknowledgement to action”: Building on a lasting legacy

Regardless of mixed reactions to the First Reading selection, many agree that there is further work the University must do.

“In the coming months, Brown expects to announce work that continues on a digital and print second edition of the Slavery and Justice Report,” wrote Senior Vice President for Communications Cass Cliatt in an email to The Herald.

The new edition will include the original report with the addition of new content including “some comments from students who were there at Brown at the time, an interview of Ruth Simmons … and a short reflective essay that I wrote,” Campbell said. 

Beyond the report, students have a range of ideas on how the University can take action on the report. Beatty would like to see Brown open more discussion forums and seminars on restorative justice, and Dahunsi would like the University to pour more resources into underprivileged communities, they said. 

“There is a sense of two campuses: one for students underprivileged … and another campus which exists for those” in positions of privilege, Dahunsi said. “Brown can organize more community-based programs that bridge the gap.”

Campbell reflects on the process of creating the report and what form its continued life can take in his article for the new edition of the report. 

“The question now is … how do we move from acknowledgement to action, from the discovery and disclosure of dark pasts to the task of building a more just and inclusive present and future?” he wrote. “Our work is just beginning.”


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