PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A commission established by Brown University in cooperation with the City of Providence and the State of Rhode Island has released a report recommending how the history of slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade in Rhode Island should be commemorated in Rhode Island, Providence, and on College Hill. Topping the group’s six recommendations is a proposal that the Public Arts Committee of Brown be asked to commission a memorial about how slavery was intertwined with the University’s early benefactors.
The commission was established in response to recommendations made by the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, appointed in 2003 by Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons. The steering committee, which included faculty members, students, and administrators, was charged to investigate and to prepare a report about the University’s historical relationship to slavery. The final report, presented in October 2006, concluded that some of the University’s early benefactors were involved in the slave trade and that the University benefited from that involvement. In February 2007, the Brown Corporation endorsed a set of initiatives in response to the Committee’s report. Among the recommendations was that the University memorialize the history revealed by the Committee by creating a “living site of memory, inviting reflection and fresh discovery without provoking paralysis or shame.”
Established in 2007, the Commission on Memorials is composed of members of the Brown Community as well as individuals nominated by the governor of Rhode Island and the mayor of Providence. The 10-member group includes historians, individuals with expertise in memorialization, public art, and community and government affairs. They met on several occasions throughout 2007-08, studying many types of memorials around the world, visiting local monuments and museums, and hearing from individuals who have led similar memorialization efforts.
The commission recommends:
- that the Public Arts Committee of the University be asked to commission a memorial that recognizes the University’s ties to slave trading, and as part of the process, the Committee should engage with the wider campus and Rhode Island communities;
- that the commission request a meeting with the mayor and governor to urge that they lead a process to explore how the city and state will similarly memorialize the place of slavery in the city and state’s past;
- that the director of the Center for Slavery and Justice, when appointed, undertake a discussion of how this history should be represented in the Brown curriculum and how this curriculum can be used to further teaching at the K-12 level;
- that the University, through the center, provide funds for ongoing public events, seminars, and lectures on issues that help the community reflect on the history of slavery in Rhode Island and on the importance of similar atrocities around the world;
- that a prize be created to recognize research on this subject; and
- that this project inform how the University should address the need to memorialize Native American heritage in this region. The Bristol property may provide opportunities in this regard.
The commission agreed that any memorial be designed to inform people about this history and to engage the broader public in an ongoing discussion of its meaning. Members also felt that the emphasis of the project should be “uplifting” and offer access to reconciliation, rather than resurrect shame or pain. The group also asserted several points of importance to the mission and purpose of any memorial project, including “capturing the full extent of the history and the present-day implications of that history,” and “addressing the lingering effects of slavery that manifest themselves in disparate social and economic conditions.” Additionally, the group discussed how to locate a memorial, which will be considered by the University, city, state, and various agencies and organizations during the project’s next phases.
Other actions taken by Brown in response to the Slavery and Justice Report include initiatives to improve public education in the Providence area. The University created a $10-million target for an endowment for Providence Public Schools, called the Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence, and launched the Urban Education Fellows program, which forgives tuition for Brown graduate students who agree to serve Providence-area schools for at least three years after they earn a Master of Arts in Brown’s Urban Education Policy Program or a Master of Arts in Teaching.
Additionally, the University is committed to exploring how best to carry out a major research and teaching initiative on issues of slavery and justice; to recruiting a director of a Center for Slavery and Justice; to making copies of the report and its materials readily available to the public; and to continuing other projects approved by the Corporation in response to the steering Committee’s report.
The full Report of the Commission on Memorials is available online (pdf).