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Brown University students vote to support reparations for descendants of enslaved people connected to the school

“Studying the issue doesn’t put money in Black folks’ pockets,” the student body president said. “It’s lovely and all, but how does that rectify what happened?”

University Hall, the oldest building on Brown University's campus in Providence, R.I., was built using the labor of enslaved people and financed by money made from the sale of enslaved people.
University Hall, the oldest building on Brown University's campus in Providence, R.I., was built using the labor of enslaved people and financed by money made from the sale of enslaved people.Gretchen Ertl for The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE — A decade and a half ago, Brown University put out a report examining its historical ties to slavery. It was considered a groundbreaking effort to confront its past, and a blueprint for other universities to follow.

But some students on the Ivy League campus now want the university to act more decisively on its findings. Last week, they expressed interest in a measure generally dismissed when the Slavery and Justice report came out: reparations.

“Studying the issue doesn’t put money in Black folks’ pockets,” said Jason Carroll, a senior from Maryland who is president of the student body. “It’s lovely and all, but how does that rectify what happened? It doesn’t tangibly improve the lives of those who are worse off because of the university.”

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Carroll can trace his ancestry on both sides of his family to enslaved people who worked in the cotton fields of the Carolinas. But like many Black people, he doesn’t know much about them. He also doesn’t know much about the people enslaved by the university’s namesake family, the person enslaved by the university’s first president, or the enslaved people who built parts of the campus that stand to this day.

“To every single Brown student, regardless of our race, we do benefit directly or indirectly from these ill-gotten gains that Brown University and the Brown family received,” Carroll said. “To me, it’s a moral question.”

Last week, undergraduates voted on two ballot questions related to the university’s history with slavery as part of student council elections. One called for the university to make “all possible efforts to identify the descendants of enslaved Africans who were entangled with and/or afflicted by the University and Brown family and their associates.”

The second called for the school to provide “reparations to identified descendants of slaves entangled with and/or afflicted by the University and Brown family in line with reparations plans from other institutions of higher education like Georgetown University.”

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The first question received 89 percent support. The second received 85 percent.

To Carroll, “reparations” could mean monetary awards and admissions preferences for descendants of people affected by the university’s ties with slavery. The Undergraduate Council of Students has also called on the university to consider obligations like preferential admissions to Native American groups indigenous to the area Brown now stands on.

Brown is named for a wealthy 18th-century Providence family. Several members of the family were enthusiastic supporters of the university, one of the country’s oldest. As the 2006 report found, they also owned slaves and although not major slave traders, “were not strangers to the business either.” The university’s first endowment drive also raised money from people involved in the slave trade.

The student referendum at Brown is part of a national debate over reparations on college campuses and communities, from Georgetown University to Evanston, Ill.

The subject of reparations at Brown used to be more controversial. Ruth Simmons, the university’s president when the report was prepared and issued, said then that the Slavery and Justice committee would not resolve questions about reparations at Brown.

“The committee’s work is not about whether or how we should pay reparations,” Simmons wrote in 2004. “That was never the intent nor will the payment of reparations be the outcome.”

After the report, the university set up the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, and started a fund for the education of children in Providence, which was only fully funded last year. Some supporters of reparations for Black people at the university have pointed out that schoolchildren in Providence are mostly Latino, and only 15 percent are Black, according to district statistics. Brown also pledged to continue efforts to diversify the faculty and student body. According to the university, 6.6 percent of incoming first-year Brown undergrads identified as Black or African American in 2006. In 2019, that number was 9.3 percent.

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It also built a slavery memorial that evokes a ball and broken chain. Zanagee Artis, a junior who is biracial, visited the memorial last year and noticed it is right next to University Hall, the oldest building on campus. It was built by slave labor, and financed in part by major slave traders, according to the 2006 report.

“There’s no denying that what this institution did hundreds of years ago changed the course of history for these people,” Artis said. “There needs to be an equally as impactful redress for those actions.”

But Artis, one of the student leaders behind the referendum, said acknowledgement of the university’s past is not enough.

“We can do more than just name that these things happened,” Artis said.

Brian Clark, a spokesman for the university, said in an e-mail that Brown has a long history of reckoning with its ties to slavery.

“The University interrogated this issue as a full community from 2003 to 2006, and Brown committed to a series of actions whose impact persists in our education, research, engagement with historically underrepresented groups and ongoing work in diversity, equity and inclusion,” Clark said. “The current work of Brown’s Task Force on Anti-Black Racism will make recommendations on more Brown can do to address the legacy of slavery.”

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Andre Willis, a cochair of the task force and a professor of religious studies, said the debate over reparations has been somewhat muted on campus, in part because the pandemic has kept people apart and dominated their attention.

Willis said he respects the activism that’s occurred under difficult circumstances, and is looking forward to a vibrant discussion when things reopen.

“It’s very difficult to make a moral argument against reparations as an idea for Black people who inherited the legacy of slavery,” Willis said.

Other universities have grappled with similar issues. In 2019, Georgetown, which was founded by the Jesuit order of priests, pledged to raise $400,000 a year to benefit the descendants of 272 people sold to keep the university financially solvent, according to the New York Times. The Jesuits themselves pledged $100 million this year to atone for their role in slavery.

The Virginia Theological Seminary has designated a $1.7 million reparations fund. The Princeton Theological Seminary in 2019 set aside $27.6 million to “repent” for its ties to slavery. The money will fund 30 new scholarships for descendants of slaves and a Center for Black Church Studies, among other things.

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Daneva Moncrieffe, copresident of the Black student union at Brown, said the referenda results point to a clear need for action.

“From there, it’s like, OK, now we know all this,” Moncrieffe said. “What are we going to do about it?”


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.