President Begins Inquiry Into Slavery Ties
By BROOKE DONALD, Associated Press Writer
When a paid notice denouncing the idea of reparations for slavery
appeared in Brown University's student newspaper three years ago,
angry students protested, dumped the papers in the trash and demanded
The Brown Daily Herald defended itself on grounds of free speech,
and university president Ruth Simmons, herself a descendant of
slaves, weighed in by stressing support for free expression. But
Simmons said the campus uproar sparked a desire to learn more.
Simmons, the first black president of an Ivy League college, took
the unprecedented step of directing Brown to study its early links
to slave owners and traders and recommend whether and how the
college should take responsibility for that connection.
"We're trying to cope with our legacy," she said in
an interview with The Associated Press. "Things don't get
better because we ignore them." The Committee on Slavery
and Justice, which she appointed, will spend two years exploring
Brown's historic ties to the slave trade and studying how other
societies have confronted and atoned for their past. Another goal
of the committee is to explain this history to students, said
committee chairman James Campbell, a Brown history professor.
"When Americans think of slavery, they think of the south
and cotton fields. The fact is that slavery existed in all 13
colonies. Rhode Island was the epicenter of the trans-Atlantic
slave trade," he said. From 1709 to 1807, Rhode Island merchants
invested in more than 930 slaving trips to Africa, according to
historian Jay Coughtry's book "The Notorious Triangle."
They wrested more than 105,000 Africans from their homeland.
"Every institution in New England was shaped by this, there
is simply no question about it," Campbell said.
Brown was started in 1764 as Rhode Island College. Its founder,
the Rev. James Manning, freed his only slave but accepted donations
from slave owners and traders, including the Brown family of Providence.
Half the cost of Brown's first library was paid by John Brown,
a slave trader. While he defended slavery until his death, his
brother, Moses Brown, and nephew, Nicholas Brown Jr., became ardent
abolitionists and pushed for a tough prohibition against slave
ships entering American ports. Nicholas Brown Jr. is the university's
Simmons, named Brown's president in November 2000, and Campbell
said the 16-member committee would explore not just the school's
historic ties to slavery, but all the complex issues regarding
race in America, including reparations. They said they recognize
not everyone will be enthusiastic.
"On one side you're going to have people who will hear that
Brown is having a discussion about the legacy of slavery and dismiss
us. They'll conclude it's just an exercise in political correctness
and it's nothing more than a money grab by black people,"
Campbell said. "On the other side are people who will dismiss
this whole committee as a public relations stunt to whitewash
At the heart of the reparations movement is the idea that disparities
between blacks and whites, in everything from education to income,
are the legacy of slavery. Blaming corporations that helped finance
the slave trade echoes a legal tactic that won more than $8 billion
from banks and insurance companies for World War II Holocaust
Opponents of reparations say they could cause greater racial divisions
and that most Americans today have no connection to slavery.
In January, a federal judge in Chicago dismissed a lawsuit that
descendants of slaves filed against corporations they say profited
from slavery. The lawsuit named companies like the Lehman Brothers
brokerage firm, Aetna Insurance and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. Lawyers
involved with the case said Brown, Yale and Harvard Law School
were likely defendants in future cases, although the schools have
not yet been sued.
Simmons wouldn't speculate on what amends Brown might make for
its past. Campbell suggested providing scholarships or helping
students from Africa attend Brown.
For now, Simmons is focused on finding out the truth.
"It's basically the uncovering-the-truth-and-stating-it committee
because really that has yet to be done," she said.