Thank you for coming today, to an important event in the life of Brown University.
Today marks an end of sorts, to a process that began when my predecessor, Ruth Simmons, asked that a committee of faculty and students look into the history of Brown’s relationship with slavery. I want to thank all of the members of the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice and the subsequent committee on memorialization that shaped the University’s response, several of whom are here today. I would also like to thank the Public Art Committee. We are grateful for your work.
The Slavery and Justice Report, released in 2006, was a model of responsible scholarship, and it helped spark a national conversation, which only deepened last year with the publication of Craig Steven Wilder’s history, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.
Through this work, Brown set a high standard for rigorous, unflinching analysis – and that standard came straight from Ruth Simmons. While she was unable to join us today, special thanks to Ruth for her leadership. We will look forward to her joining us next month for the opening of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. I would also like to especially thank Professor Jim Campbell who chaired the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice.
I hope that today can also mark a beginning to a better, more inclusive, and more just way of remembering our origins. I want to thank Martin Puryear for his work in designing this essential memorial, and all of the faculty and staff who advised the process.
Slavery existed in many places, and as many historians have pointed out, far larger numbers of Africans were brought to Brazil and the Caribbean than to North America. But there was something especially troubling about its presence in a society that was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
That was true for the United States, for Rhode Island, and for the new college begun in Rhode Island in 1764, which moved to this location in 1770. All proclaimed allegiance to broad principles of freedom, including freedom of speech and freedom of religion. All compromised those principles by tolerating and in many cases encouraging slavery.
Here on this campus, the very work of building University Hall was performed by enslaved African-Americans. And as the report details, Brown’s financial well-being was intimately tied to slavery in all of its aspects. Southern slaveowners contributed to the new college in its early days, and Northern merchants and investors profited both directly and indirectly from slavery and the slave trade.
What remains troubling about slavery and the civilization that grew around it is the ease with which utterly reasonable, upright citizens decided to participate. Ezra Stiles, a pillar of learning, a revered minister in Newport, the author of the first draft of the Brown charter, a future president of Yale, was a slave owner.
James Manning, also a minister and Brown’s first president, came to Rhode Island with a slave, although he freed him in 1770, the year the college came to this spot. Members of the Corporation were slaveowners, including the family that ultimately gave its name to this college. Famously, that family included prominent abolitionists as well – Moses Brown in particular.
But for many decades after the end of the slave trade, Rhode Island merchants perpetuated slavery, both by avoiding the strictures of the law and by financing new forms of business that supported the peculiar institution in the South.
These contradictions go very deep in our history. They were explored brilliantly by a former Brown professor, Edmund S. Morgan, in his book American Slavery – American Freedom. We know we cannot solve all of our contradictions. Our society continues to boast of certain kinds of tolerance – free speech, religion – while also tolerating poverty, injustice and inequality.
One of the most important parts of the Slavery and Justice Report is its call to fight modern legacies of slavery. That includes human trafficking and the many work systems still in place around the world that keep workers in a form of permanent servitude — a topic that was explored and discussed at the panel that immediately preceded this ceremony.
It also includes the long and pernicious legacy of Jim Crow, and the ways in which we still allow great disparities to prevail in our society.
The Report cites Hurricane Katrina in particular, a situation I studied in detail before I came to Brown. That was supposed to be a once-in-a-generation kind of catastrophe.
But we see inequities in housing and health care on nearly a daily basis in our country and our world — particularly in the very places in West Africa that so many men, women, and children were taken from — today, as Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria fight the Ebola outbreak, and closer to home, in Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities around the United States.
I hope that all of us will do our part. This memorial will be doing good work if it encourages passersby to reflect on the injustices of today as well as yesterday.
It is of course easier to forget injustice than to remember it. Our minds are conditioned in the opposite direction – we would rather turn away from pain than face it. It is difficult enough to remember the past, without adding the burden of remembering the failures of the past. It requires an act of will. That is what we are here to ask of you.
The reason this memorial is in such a prominent spot on our campus is that we know a polite remembrance is not enough. We have an obligation, here at this citadel of free speech, to set a higher standard. We need to commit fully to the act of remembrance. We need to weave it into the daily rhythm of Brown University, and into all of the forms of work that we do on this campus. We must reject the forms of injustice that so freely circulated in 1764, and which have not disappeared nearly as neatly as we would like.
That includes the all-too-easy injustice of a convenient forgetfulness. Brown not only tolerated slavery in the 18th century, it tolerated a form of historical amnesia, centuries long, that overlooked uncomfortable aspects of its own story. We can do better. As of today, we will do better.
No college in the 18th century was built atop a hill as steep as this one. Given our unusual location, we have a choice. We can either become an ivory tower, cut off from the world below, or we can try to become something more like a city on a hill, to use the famous phrase – a model of inclusivity, tolerance, and human dignity.
Paradoxically, the further away we get from that time, the more we seem to know about it. In the last generation, we have seen very important advances. No serious work of early American history can be written that does not somehow take slavery into consideration.
One resource alone, the Transatlatic Slave Trade Database, has done heroic work to fill in the historic record. It tells us that more than 12 million Africans embarked for the New World – the largest forced migration in history. 10.7 million survived the Middle Passage to begin new lives on this side of the Atlantic.
Only a small percentage came to Rhode Island or were carried on Rhode Island ships. But within the local economy, the merchants who directed this human traffic played an important role and generally supported the work of the Rhode Island College.
The reason we know now more about this story is not that new sources have become available, it’s that we have acquired a new resolve to look at them. That is the work that universities can do, and must do. I am grateful to all who participated in this extraordinarily important work of recovery that lies not at the margins, but at the center of our University’s purpose.