Thursday, November 19, 2009

Brown University Heroically Faces its Past

The Royal Society, Slavery and the Island of Jamaica: 1660-1700Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island has a historical relationship to the slave trade. In 2003, the university’s President Ruth J. Simmons appointed a committee to investigate and issue a public report on the University’s historical relationship to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. This was called the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice.

The history of this relationship profoundly interested me. In 1764, the year that the College of Rhode Island (Brown University) was founded, Esek Hopkins, member of the college’s Board of Trustees from 1782 to 1802, sailed to West Africa in command of a slave ship, the Sally, owned by Nicholas Brown and Company, a family-run partnership of four brothers, Nicholas, John, Joseph, and Moses Brown. Brown University is not the only Providence business to benefit from the slave trade; however, as an institution of higher education, it feels the need and responsibility to make its history known. Prominent Providence merchants, the Browns were also important benefactors of the college, playing a leading role in the relocation of the school from Warren, Rhode Island, to its current home in Providence.

Rhode Island dominated the North American share of the African slave trade, mounting over a thousand slaving voyages in the century before abolition of the slave trade in 1807 (and many illegal voyages afterward). Still, the Sally’s voyage in 1764 was unique in the fact of the unusual number of deaths onboard, resulting partly from a failed insurrection. The balance of the loss came through disease, suicide, and starvation, typical for most slave runs. The captives, themselves were left on the West Indian island of Antigua.

What should the University do with the clock donated by Hopkins, purchased with proceeds from the slave trade? Is it appropriate to display it? Should the plaque honoring Esek Hopkins be removed? Simmons stressed that the committee’s purpose was not to determine whether or how the University might pay monetary reparations, nor did she expect it to come to a consensus on the reparations question. The point was to encourage debate, deepen understanding of the slavery issue. In this respect, displaying the clock and plaque might be even more helpful... as long as a reference is made to inform the public. This involved not only university programs, but the organization of non-university programs. An exhibit called “Navigating the Past: The Voyage of the Slave Ship Sally, 1764-1765,” has been displayed at the John Brown House, one of the original owners of the ship as well as the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda in St. John’s, Antigua, the final destination of surviving captives from the ship. A high school curriculum program has also been devised, called “A Forgotten History: The Slave Trade and Slavery in New England.” These efforts are focused at increasing awareness of the issue.

According to President Simmons in the April 28, 2004 edition of the Boston Globe, “This is an effort designed to involve the campus community in a discovery of the meaning of our past. . . .Understanding our history and suggesting how the full truth of that history can be incorporated into our common traditions will not be easy. But, then, it doesn’t have to be.”

The important point to this committee’s findings and suggestions is that reparations for slavery involve education, not necessarily monetary contributions. Programs like those instituted by Brown University will build upon the foundation of empowerment of all members of humanity. This is not about inflating the wallets of a few minorities to salve the wounds of the past. It is generally regarded that that approach will fail its purpose.

No comments: