PROVIDENCE — In 2003, a steering committee at Brown University was formed to examine how the institution was involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. At the time, there was little historical context about the university’s founders’ ties to slavery.
When the report came out in 2006, the committee’s research revealed that James Brown III, who established the family fortune, was part of a group of Rhode Island merchants who profited from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He had established himself early in the mercantile business and traded rum, molasses, and slaves until his death in 1739. He left a large fortune to his sons, who followed him in the business under the direction of their uncle, Obadiah Brown.
In fact, many of the university’s founders and benefactors had profited off and were involved in the slave trade into the late 18th century. Stephen Hopkins, the university’s first chancellor and the author of the 1774 pamphlet “The Rights of Colonies Examined,” had owned slaves, the committee found.
And when Brown, formerly known as the College of Rhode Island, relocated their campus from Warren, R.I., to what is now known as College Hill in Providence, they settled on expropriated Indigenous land.
The release of the report had caused a reckoning within Brown and a backlash against then-president Ruth Simmons. But it also sparked introspection at more than 100 other colleges and universities across the country, untangling — and in some cases, apologizing for — the damages their founders and institutions had caused as related to slavery.
Brown had issued a number of recommendations with the original report, such as creating a Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice — which the university founded in 2012. It is led by Anthony Bogues, the director and a professor of humanities and of Africana Studies. Bogues was on the steering committee that released the original report, and was also one of three editors that worked to release the report’s second edition, which published on Friday.
The second edition of the report augments, rather than replaces, the first, offering new commentary on the context and impact the original report had.
In fact, as Brown President Christina H. Paxson wrote in the foreword, this new edition “expands upon it with new perspectives from faculty, staff, and alumni that — with the benefit of fifteen years to understand and reflect upon the report’s context beyond what was possible in the difficult moments of its origins — offer new insights on the document’s persistent and evolving impact, both on campus and across the nation and the world.”
Bogues said in an interview Thursday, prior to the release, that the report is finally a “more complete document.”
“What we are examining, and what we are asking in terms of slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, are not just academic questions. But there are questions and issues that are very much alive in American society, and in some cases, several other parts of the world,” said Bogues. “We wanted to find ways in which we could catalyze discussions around the issues of racial slavery and its legacies in America.”
“It’s an intellectual responsibility as an institution, but quite frankly, I think, it’s an ethical obligation,” he said “Once you have done your historical work, you have to ask: How do you make repair?”
Allison Levy, a digital scholarship editor at Brown and another editor of the report’s second edition, said she found it imperative that the report — including its historical documents — become public records that were “open to the world, without barriers to access.”
She’s worked for the last 18 months, helping transcribe historical documents (such as an 84-page account book from a slave ship) that can be interacted with and read online.
“This edition was really about bringing commentary on the context and impact of this report, but also putting it into a digital archive,” said Levy, who said senior vice president of communications Cass Cliatt was the third editor of the edition. She said incoming freshmen will now be required to read the text of the report the summer before they arrive on campus.
Some of the commentary in the second edition includes reflections from current and former Brown faculty and students. Shontay Delalue, Brown’s former vice president of institutional equity and diversity, wrote that Brown is a “changed university” because of the many moments of reckoning it had over the years, including with the release of the Slavery and Justice Report.
“Even as other institutions have looked toward Brown, the Slavery and Justice Report has established an expectation of introspection within the university. The report represents a moment of concretizing Brown’s commitment to create a more diverse and inclusive academic community — to learn from the past and ensure underrepresented members of the present community can fulfill their potential as scholars and leaders,” wrote Delalue, who is now the senior vice president and diversity officer at Dartmouth College.
In an interview, Paxson said while many universities followed Brown’s lead in 2006 to partake in their own reckoning, she believes the release of the second edition will have a different impact.
“I think the importance of this second edition is it highlights the fact that addressing the legacy of slavery at our institutions is not something that you do once and forget about it. Right? It’s something that requires sustained attention over time. Issuing this now is really a reflection of the fact that we still pay attention to it, and that we’re going to continue to pay attention to this into the future,” said Paxson.
In June 2020 Paxson commissioned the Task Force on Anti-Black Racism, which presented her with a list of 19 recommendations in April. The goal of the recommendations was to change the conditions on campus for Black students, faculty, and staff to ultimately improve the campus’s culture. She said the importance of the task force was to change Brown’s culture by, again, addressing anti-Black racism at Brown.
And it’s work like this, she said that Brown is now in the beginning stages of developing a pipeline for Providence school students to four-year institutions. They’ve hired a consultant, and Paxson said there are a number of national models that they can look to in the development stages.
“It’s something I really hope makes an impact on the aspirations of the city and the state to increase college going among young people who are coming up through our educational system right now,” said Paxson, who compared this development as a much larger program than the university’s fund for Providence students (now worth $17 million). “This commitment will require significant resources but this is over and above what we’re doing for the fund for Providence students.”
She said the program will likely be developed by May, but hopes to begin enrolling students in it next fall, which she said “should not be a small, boutique program.” But it’s programs like this, she explained, that are significant to “repair the past.”
“We are a university that will not allow ourselves to fall victim to what the report described as the ‘inevitable tendencies to deny, extenuate, and forget,’” Paxson wrote in the second edition. “It is through these efforts that the work of the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice continues to live on in real and lasting ways for future generations.”