Confronting The Legacy Of Slavery And The Slave Trade: Brown University Investigates Its Painful Past

In April I had the privilege of participating in a scholarly panel at the United Nations, one in a series of events sponsored by the CARICOM Secretariat to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade by the legislatures of the United States and Great Britain. As several of us on the panel noted, the victory of 1807 proved less decisive than abolitionists at the time imagined or hoped. Though the new restrictions reduced the trans-atlantic trade, they did not stop it; over the next sixty years, another 2-3 million Africans were borne into New World slavery. And it would take a further sixty years, until the 1926 League of Nations Slavery Convention, before slavery itself was formally prohibited in international law. Yet even conceding these limitations, 1807 represents a watershed in human history, a germinal moment in the continuing struggle to create and enforce international norms of humanitarian conduct. It is a moment well worth commemorating, and no setting could be more appropriate than the United Nations, an institution whose foundational commitment to the "inherent dignity and . equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family" is a direct legacy of the abolitionist struggle.


I was invited to participate on the panel by virtue of my service on Brown University's Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. Appointed in 2003 by Brown's President, Ruth J. Simmons, the Committee was charged to investigate the university's historical relationship to slavery and the trans-atlantic slave trade and to report its findings openly and truthfully.

The Committee was also asked to organize public programmes that might help the campus and members of the wider public to reflect on the meaning of this history in the present, on the complex historical, political, legal and moral questions posed by any present day confrontation with past injustice. Over the course of its tenure, the Committee entertained more than a hundred distinguished scholars, working not only on slavery and the slave trade (both historic and contemporary), but also on truth commissions, war crimes tribunals, reparations movements and other vehicles of "retrospective justice". The Committee delivered its final report, with recommendations, in October 2006. In early 2007, following a period of discussion and public comment, President Simmons and the Brown Corporation issued a formal response, outlining specific steps that the University would take in light of the Committee's findings. Both the Committee's report and the President's response are available online at www.brown.edu/slaveryjustice. The website also offers a rich assortment of supplementary materials, including video excerpts of committee-sponsored events, curricular materials for teachers interested in introducing the study of slavery and the slave trade in their classrooms, and a digital repository of historical documents. This repository includes a complete documentary reconstruction of the voyage of a slave ship dispatched from Rhode Island in 1764, the year of Brown's founding, by members of the University's namesake family.


In the course of its research, the Committee learned much that was fresh and surprising, but what most surprised me was the range and intensity of reactions sparked by news of the Committee's appointment. Some praised the University for having the courage and vision to confront issues that other institutions had contrived to forget or ignore. Brown's efforts were "fraught with potential for conflict, embarrassment, and discord", warned one correspondent. "But few issues in United States society are so important, and you deserve great credit for taking on this important work. And your efforts-if they are rigorous and critical and comprehensive-could serve as a model for a broader discussion throughout our society of the residue of slavery." Others, however, attacked the Committee as divisive and wrong-headed. "You disgust me, as you disgust many Americans", wrote one critic. "Slavery was wrong, but at that time it was a legal enterprise. It ended, case closed. You cite slavery's effects as being the reason that black people are so far behind, but that just illustrates your ignorance. Black people, here and now, are behind because some can't keep their hands off drugs, or guns, can't move forward, can't get off welfare, can't do the simple things to improve their life. . They don't deserve money, they deserve a boot in the backside over and over until they can find their own way . Can your ignorant research, and can Ruth Simmons too."

As an historian, I confess that I find the second letter more interesting than the first. It reveals a tendency, endemic in American politics today, to reduce all discussions of slavery and its legacy down to the narrow question of monetary reparations: Who owes what to whom? More broadly, it reveals how awkward and painful the slavery issue remains in our country, 200 years after the abolition of the trans-atlantic trade and more than 140 years after the end of the Civil War. The very tone of the letter suggests that the case is not "closed" at all, that slavery continues to provoke raw, unresolved emotions among many Americans, white as well as black. Paradoxically, such letters may offer the best evidence of the value, indeed the urgency, of the kind of reflective, reasoned dialogue that we sought to foster at Brown.

Perhaps most importantly, the controversy aroused by the Committee shows how much our politics and perceptions, the very terms in which we see our worlds, are shaped by the idea of race-an idea that is itself a legacy of slavery. As the Committee's report argues, slavery is a virtually universal feature in human history, and one of its universal characteristics is the systematic degradation of the enslaved. Though the particulars differ, slaves throughout history have been stigmatized as inferior, uncivilized, bestial. Yet in few societies was this logic carried further than in the United States, where people of African descent came to be regarded as a distinct "race" of persons, fashioned by nature for a servile role. An early anti-slavery treatise, published in the Providence Gazette in 1773, explained the process succinctly: "Slave keeping . is a custom that casts the most indelible odium on a whole people, causing some . to infer that they are a different race formed by the Creator for brutal service, to drudge for us with their brethren of the stalls." In the decades that followed, this inference would acquire new veneers of "scientific" authority, all to demonstrate the innate, ineradicable inferiority of black people.
In the treatise in the Providence Gazette, we can see the first stirrings of the trans-atlantic movement that would culminate in the 1807 slave trade abolition acts. But the essay was doubly significant to us on the Brown Steering Committee. While the author remained anonymous, the essay's appearance in the paper was the work of Moses Brown, one of the early benefactors of our University. A few months earlier, Brown had experienced a spiritual crisis, brought about by the death of his wife, Anna, which he interpreted as divine punishment for his earlier participation in slave trading. He converted to Quakerism, manumitted his slaves and threw himself into the embryonic abolition movement. His efforts led to the passage of Rhode Island's 1784 gradual abolition act, as well as to a 1787 State law, lamentably unenforced, barring Rhode Islanders from involvement in the slave trade. Brown's campaign brought him into contact with Wilberforce, Clarkson, Sharpe and other giants of the abolitionist movement, but it also put him at loggerheads with many of his erstwhile companions, including his older brother John, who emerged as the trade's most vociferous defender even as his brother became its most vocal critic. John Brown would later have the unwelcome distinction of being the first man tried in United States federal court for illegal slave trading, a prosecution brought by the Providence Abolition Society, an organization founded by Moses.
The conflict between the brothers and between the broader movements they represented rippled through the University. Students debated the merits of slavery and abolition in classrooms, debating societies, and commencement orations. Among the documents featured on the Committee's website is the handwritten text of an oration delivered at the 1798 commencement by a graduating senior, James Tallmadge, later a United States congressman. Addressing an audience that included several prominent slave traders, Tallmadge systematically rebutted each of the arguments advanced by defenders of the African trade, including the "specious" notion that a person "formed with a dark complexion is inferior to him, who possesses a complexion more light". That Americans at the time could seriously entertain such ideas, he added, was a matter "for future generations to investigate".
It took more than 200 years, but we at Brown finally answered that summons. If our example might inspire other institutions to undertake similar investigations of their own complex and painful pasts, then so much the better.