Ivy League university funded by slave trader confronts its past

Click to follow
The Independent US

Brown University in the state of Rhode Island has stood for the highest educational standards and intellectual excellence for 240 years.

Brown University in the state of Rhode Island has stood for the highest educational standards and intellectual excellence for 240 years.

But contained within this Ivy League establishment's history are details that sit less comfortably with the image it would like to project: its links to slavery and wealth made from the trade in humans.

Now Ruth Simmons, the university's president, herself a great-granddaughter of slaves, has established a commission to examine the school's historical ties and decide whether it should try to make amends.

The commission, whose findings could have huge implications for universities and public institutions across the US, holds its first public meeting this week.

She told The New York Times: "I sit here in my office beneath the portrait of people who lived at a different time and who saw the ownership of people in a different way. You can't sit in an office and face that every day unless you really want to understand this dichotomy." Brown's relationship with the slave trade has been recognised but rarely talked of. A short history, published as a booklet by the university, notes the connection between Brown and the merchant family that gave it its name.

Nicholas Brown, who was one of the university's 24 original incorporators in 1764, was a wealthy merchant whose family gave generously to the school, when it was called Rhode Island College.

The booklet records that Nicholas's brother, John Brown, paid half of the cost of the college's first library. When Nicholas's son, Nicholas Brown Jr, donated $5,000 (£2,800), the college changed its name to Brown.

But the history fails to mention that John Brown was a slave trader, as well as a merchant, and that ships from his family trading company were used to transport slaves. Ms Simmons's own office was built by labourers who included slaves. The issue of reparations caused an uproar in 2001 when David Horowitz, the conservative writer, placed a full-page advert in the Brown student newspaper under the headline, "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea and Racist Too".

The advertisement argued that slavery happened long ago, was ended by whites and that African-Americans should be grateful for the relative prosperity and freedom that they have in the United States.

Ms Simmons, the first African-American to head one of the Ivy League universities, joined Brown a few months after the uproar. She stressed her support for free speech, even of unpopular opinions, in her first speech to students.

There was further controversy in 2002 when plaintiffs filed lawsuits seeking reparations for slavery against a number of banks, which allegedly had benefited from slavery. At the time it was said that Brown, Yale and Harvard Law School were likely to be future defendants in any legal action. Against this backdrop, Ms Simmons decided to establish a commission to look into Brown's links and to consider reparations. James Campbell, professor of history at Brown, has been appointed to head the inquiry.

Ms Simmons, one of 12 children of an east Texas tenant farmer, said that she was motivated by a need to try to address the issue and then move on.

She said: "How does one repair a kind of social breach in human rights so that people are not just coming back to it periodically and demanding apologies so that society then moves on?"

Mr Horowitz was yesterday unavailable for comment. In a column written in 2000, he said: "If the reparations idea continues to gain traction, its most obvious effect will be to intensify ethnic antagonisms and generate new levels of racial resentment.

"It will further alienate African-Americans from their American roots and further isolate them from all of America's other communities."