With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Brown University Taking Heat for even Considering Slavery Reparations

Alan Power, in the Guardian (March 23, 2004):

One of the buildings at the Ivy League Brown University bears a plaque that says: "Erected in 1822 by Nicholas Brown." What it does not add is "with money his family made from the slave trade".

Rikki Baldwin, 18, a first-year student walking into the building, wears a thoughtful expression. "It's history, it's ugly," she says. "Mmm, slavery. It's bad, but it's not this generation and I'm not sure if we deserve . . . it."

That final "it" refers to the attempt currently being made to go some way towards making reparations for the damage done to African-Americans through slavery by offering apologies and economic compensation.

Brown has now launched an investigation to clarify links between the college, its eponymous founding fathers and their role in the Rhode Island slave industry - and to decide what to do about it.

Baldwin is from Texas, not far from Houston, and her parents went to the rival high school of fellow Texan and now president of Brown, Dr Ruth Simmons. Simmons herself is a descendent of slaves. She beat some of the stiffest odds imaginable not only to get to college in the southern US but to end up as the first African-American to head an Ivy League college. "The neighbourhoods I grew up in were brutally segregated. The boundary between black and white was absolute," Simmons says.

Almost three years into her presidency, she has turned the spotlight on the fact that part of Brown's elegant campus, on the hill above the attractive New England port of Providence, was built with slave labour and on slavery's profits.

The four Brown brothers of Providence were wealthy merchants and manufacturers who also traded slaves, owned slave ships and used slaves in their factories. In the early 19th century, the brothers fell out; three renounced their former trade and joined the abolition movement while the fourth entrenched himself to the point where he continued to ship slaves even after it was illegal. All the brothers in some way put money into the founding of the college.

Now Simmons has appointed a committee to uncover more details, consider reconciliation and, she hopes, cut a path for other American colleges nervously considering atoning for their guilty secrets. "Brown's history makes this an issue with a special obligation and special opportunity to provide thoughtful inquiry," she says.

The college plans to invite advice from experts on the Holocaust, South Africa's post-apartheid truth and reconciliation process and Japanese- Americans who were given cheques as compensation for internment during the second world war.

Simmons says she hoped the committee will "help the campus and the nation come to a better understanding of the complicated, controversial ques tions surrounding the issue of reparations for slavery."

Many have jumped to the conclusion that this means the college, known as the most liberal in the Ivy League, will simply start throwing cash at anyone who claims to be a descendant of a Rhode Island slave. Committee chairman Professor James Campbell was horrified after being invited on to Conservative Talk Radio in Virginia to be bombarded by callers accusing Brown of representing "namby pamby liberals" prepared to participate in a "black money grab".

Some alumni have already contacted the college saying they will not give any more money to Brown's endowment if it is to be used for "writing cheques to blacks" - and yet the study has only just begun and will not report until November 2005. Others accuse Simmons of being on nothing more than a personal crusade. On the other side, many believe reparations should not only be hefty but should be personal: that not just the college but also surviving members of the Brown family and other local slave traders in Rhode Island should individually donate money from their ill-gotten inheritances.

Campbell is frustrated that what they planned as a careful, sophisticated debate was so quickly thrown to the floor by bigotry and anger. But this is one of the reasons why the US government continuously skirts the incendiary topic of reparations at a federal level, to the point where it has become almost taboo among both Republicans and Democrats.

Indigo Bethea, a postgraduate student at Brown, said at a public debate held on campus last Thursday: "Every country that has participated in slavery should consider reparations. It extends beyond economics but it includes economics. It is systemic - you should look at economic packages to improve healthcare, education and, if I had my magic wand, give more people in the ordinary community access to the Ivy League."

Indeed for Brown, although the issue has national and international implications, it is also a case of charity beginning at home. Even many locals are entirely unaware that Rhode Island was a hub for the US slave industry. Ships owned by merchants in the RI ports of Providence, Newport and Bristol accounted for more than 60% of slaving voyages during the 18th and early 19th centuries between the US, Africa and the Caribbean.

The human cargo was offloaded at the waterfront in what is now downtown Providence, traded in the market square and the profits banked with Providence Bank, of which the Brown brothers were directors and which later became part of the major US retail banking chain Fleet. Slaves worked in factories, on farms and in households in New England.

Historian Dr Joanne Pope Melish, of Kentucky University, said at the debate that this was a fact that had largely been erased from northern US inhabitants' taught history and consciousness. "It instils a particularly insidious and vicious racism - we the 'virtuous Yankees' over the evil southern slaveholders.

"Blacks have been in New England for 300 years and their problems are not imported from the south or derived from something innate, as northern racists will claim," she said.

The debate took place in the same hall at Brown where reactionary commentator and author David Horowitz stood last autumn and defended a 2001 advert he had placed in college newspapers headlined: "Ten reasons why reparations for slavery is a bad idea". The advert caused uproar on campuses nationwide.

Horowitz maintains that black Americans are prospering today and should be grateful that their forebears were brought to the US, and that this generation should not be held responsible for slavery.

Campbell wants to widen the debate and insists that reparations are "not about dollars" or rather, not only about dollars and definitely not about writing cheques.

Instead, the committee plans to look at options that might combine an apology with ideas such as creating scholarships to bring more African-American students to Brown, local programmes to boost education, or health, and the following idea: "We brought slaves from Africa, why don't we bring some students from Africa to study at Brown?"

No financial figures have yet been discussed.