PROVIDENCE — Asked if they knew who built University Hall, Brown University’s oldest building, several students walking through campus last week had the same response: No idea.
After learning that slave owners and slaves played a large role in constructing the building in 1770, the students had another common reaction: shock.
“It should be something addressed by Brown,” said Aaron Weinstein, 25, a political science graduate student. The university is planning to do just that.
Under the direction of Anthony Bogues, the Harmon Family professor of Africana studies, Brown University will examine its historical ties to slavery and explore injustices worldwide with the launch of a Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice this fall, the only such center to cover both subjects together.
The center is the result of a recommendation from a steering committee on slavery and justice, which spent three years discussing what to do about Brown University and Rhode Island’s relationship to the slave trade.
“We like to think in this country of slavery as a Southern phenomenon and that somehow the North was unblemished and didn’t have anything to do with slavery,” Bogues said. “. . . [But] the ports around here were the main epicenter for slave ships.”
The first slaves arrived in Rhode Island in 1638. By the end of the slave trade in the 19th century, Rhode Islanders had made about 1,000 voyages that brought, according to the university’s report, “more than one-hundred thousand Africans into New World slavery.” Brothers Nicholas, Joseph, John, and Moses Brown — who provided much of the finances to transform the College of Rhode Island into Brown University — took part in the slave trade. By the early 1770s, they owned 14 slaves among themselves. The evidence today of Brown’s connection to slavery lies in University Hall — originally called the College Edifice — that now houses offices of the president, provost, and dean. The four-story brick building with white-trim windows was constructed with wood donated by Lopez and Rivera, a large slave trading firm, while several slave owners offered their slaves for labor as a donation.
After questions about the university’s past began to surface in the early 2000s, Ruth J. Simmons, Brown president and the first African-American president of an Ivy League school, commissioned a committee of administrators, faculty, and students to investigate the school’s ties to the slave trade and determine what could be done to address injustices from the past.
A critical recommendation in the committee’s 2007 report was the creation of a center devoted to the study of slavery and justice. Bogues, who officially becomes director on Sunday, is turning that recommendation into a reality; the center is to open this fall in Alumni Hall. (The location is temporary, and negotiations for a permanent building on campus are underway.) In a conference room in the Department of Africana Studies, which began in 2001, Bogues spoke about his vision for the center
He said the center will examine how a nation and its universities can embrace and learn from their historical experiences rather than hiding or running from them — “sweeping it under the rug,” Bogues said.
In addition to slavery worldwide, the center will delve into the impact of historical injustices such as African apartheid and genocides such as the Holocaust. The work that comes out of the research could have policy implications for social issues ranging from education, immigration, and human rights, said Corey D.B. Walker, chairman of the Department of Africana Studies at Brown.
Walker described the center, the first of its kind to couple topics of slavery and justice, as an “audacious undertaking.”
“It says something unique about Brown and its intellectual culture,” he said. “It means that we’re unafraid of taking on the big questions — sometimes the thorniest questions.”
To answer those questions, Bogues plans to organize symposiums throughout the year that will bring scholars from around the world to discuss the ways slavery has shaped the present. Bogues is also developing slavery research programs for undergraduates, fellowships focused on slavery studies for graduate students, and expanding course offerings for students studying history, political science, and Africana studies. By 2014, Brown’s 250th anniversary year, Bogues hopes to unveil a memorial — designed by African-American sculptor Martin Puryear — on the green bordering University Hall that will serve as a reminder of Brown’s past. “We have a lot of work to do,” Bogues said.
Bogues, who has a son living in England and family still residing in Jamaica, is a Providence resident in his late 50s. He earned his doctorate in political theory from the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. His interest in the idea of freedom originated when the University of the West Indies History Department asked him to write about the emancipation of slaves in Jamaica.
His research led to some surprises.
“It became clear to me the story of freedom was not the story that I had learned in university history classes,” he said.
Bogues said he wrote his paper from the point of view of a slave — a perspective missing from most records on slavery, he said. “I think the story of freedom is one of the most important human stories, and I think that we have not yet told that story from the point of view of those who have not been free,” he said.
Bogues came to Brown on a sabbatical from Jamaica in 1999 to pore over colonial documents in the John Carter Brown Library for a project about freedom and African diaspora called “Singing Songs of Freedom.” He became a visiting professor from 2000 to 2001, and then stayed to teach courses on freedom, Haitian art, and reggae music.
Rakim Brooks, 25, took several of Bogues’s courses at Brown, where he majored in Africana studies and political theory. In 2009, Brooks introduced Bogues when he gave the inaugural Harmon Family Professorship of Africana Studies lecture. Brooks, a former Rhodes Scholar, called Bogues one of his greatest mentors.
“He understands in a global way the role slavery has played in the creation of the modern world,” he said. “In my mind, there’s nobody more fitting to do this work than him.”