Brown University Committee Examines Historical Ties to Slavery
Brown University President Ruth Simmons has established a committee to examine the Ivy League school’s historical ties to slavery and debate whether the university should make amends.
An article in Brown’s alumni magazine last summer reported that Simmons created the presidential committee last spring. She appointed about 15 faculty members, students and administrators, including historians, political scientists and experts in the fields of African studies, American civilization and ethnic studies.
The group has met monthly since the fall.
A Brown spokesman confirmed to The Providence Journal that the group exists, but declined to discuss it.
The alumni magazine article said the committee, whose costs are covered by Simmons’ office budget, plans to bring speakers to campus. Topics may include Rhode Island’s and Brown’s links to the slave trade of the 1700s and the issue of slave reparations.
A university booklet titled “A Short History” notes the connections between the institution and its namesake family, but omits the family’s connections to the slave trade.
Nicholas Brown, who was one of the 24 original incorporators in 1764, was a wealthy merchant whose family gave generously to the school, then called Rhode Island College.
The history notes that Nicholas’ brother, John Brown, paid half the cost of the college’s first library. When Nicholas’ son, Nicholas Brown Jr., gave his alma mater $5,000 in 1804, the college changed its name to Brown.
The 88-page history neglects to mention that John Brown was a slave trader as well as a merchant, and that ships from his family trading company, Nicholas Brown & Co., were used to transport slaves.
It has been difficult to determine how much of the family’s wealth was derived from the slave trade versus the rum and dry-goods trades. Historical evidence also indicates that slaves were used at the family’s candle factory in Providence, its ironworks in Scituate, and to build Brown’s University Hall, according to the university report.
The Brown family legacy now under review by Simmons’ committee is complex, and one the family itself wrestled with more than 200 years ago.
John Brown continued to defend slavery until his death. Another brother, Moses Brown, and their nephew, Nicholas Brown Jr., however, became ardent abolitionists and worked to end slavery by pushing for a tougher prohibition against slave ships entering American ports.
John Brown became the first Rhode Islander prosecuted under the federal Slave Trade Act of 1794 and had to forfeit his slave ship.
— Associated Press
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