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Brown’s Family History

Brown’s Family History

Following are excerpts from the special report “Slavery, the Brown Family of Providence and Brown University”:

Brown’s Family History”The histories of Brown University and the Brown family of Providence are complex and firmly intertwined. The family included both ardent abolitionists like Moses Brown and Nicholas Brown Jr. (after whom the University is named) and unapologetic slave traders like John Brown.”

Did the College or the University own slaves or employ slave labor?

“Though the short answer to this question is ‘no,’ there are nuances to consider. James Manning, first president of the College, freed his one slave in late 1770.[8] In addition, the Corporation’s Committee for Erecting the College Edifice (now University Hall), for which Nicholas Brown & Company served as fiscal agents, utilized a variety of different laborers during the 1770 to 1772 construction period. Listed on the expenditure records are at least four “Negro” slaves – “Mingo, Pero and two unnamed individuals – hired out by the Committee (or) by their respective Providence masters and mistresses.”[9]

On Slave-Trading
“Among his varied enterprises, Captain James Brown made one attempt at the slave trade in 1736. The slave trade in Rhode Island had started forty years earlier. In 1696 a Boston-owned ship arrived at Newport with a cargo of forty-seven slaves, and sold fourteen; in 1700 three slaving vessels from Newport sailed to Africa and took slaves to Barbados.[26] Slave-trading began to play a larger role after 1720.

New estimates reflect that throughout the eighteenth century, Rhode Island merchants controlled about half of all the American trade in African slaves.[27] Newport reigned as the unrivaled leader of the Rhode Island slave trade up until and directly after the American Revolution.[28] The trade subsided entirely during the Revolution, resuming in the 1780s. From 1790 on, Bristol became the state’s leading slave-trade port until the ostensible end of the American slave trade in the early 19th century. Viewed against a contemporary yardstick, Rhode Island ships transported 106,000 slaves during a period when Great Britain, one of the ‘big three’ slave-exporting nations (alongside Portugal and Spain), purchased and sold an estimated 2.5 million African slaves.”[29]

On Slave Labor
“Ultimately, as was the case in other slaveholding families, the Brown family’s ownership of slaves and use of slave labor were inextricable from the industries that slavery affected and was affected by — rum distilleries, candle factories, iron foundries, and cotton mills. The Browns were not uniform in their attitudes or their actions regarding slavery. Moses Brown, the exemplar in this respect, was the first to take an anti-slavery initiative, as noted above. Successive generations of the other Brown families continued to utilize slave labor in their households and enterprises.”

To view the full report, visit

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