Slavery unchained

By PHILIP EIL  |  May 1, 2013


Brown isn't the first university to establish a center examining forms of slavery. The Centre for the Study of International Slavery at the UK's Liverpool University was founded in 2006 and, closer to Providence, Yale's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, & Abolition has been hosting conferences and scholars since 1998.

But few schools have had a more personal or public tussle with their history than Brown, an Ivy League institution named for a family whose fortune came partially from the traffic and trade of human beings.

This history was discussed to varying degrees before Simmons's famous steering committee. Professor Walker points to a 1968 campus visit when the author Horace Bond highlighted the school's ties to the triangle trade.

But the issue exploded in the early 2000s. In 2001, stacks of the Brown Daily Herald were snatched when the paper ran an advertisement by conservative commentator David Horowitz that read "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks — and Racist, Too!" In 2005, Simmons and her quest for institutional introspection were profiled in a New Yorker article titled "Peculiar Institutions."

The steering committee released their 100-plus-page report the following fall, writing in one section, "[T]here is no questions that many of the assets that underwrote the University's creation and growth derived, directly and indirectly, from slavery and the slave trade." Other portions describe how Brown's University Hall — "the 'Superman building' of its day," local historian Ray Rickman says — was constructed with the use of slave labor.

The report, available free online and for $7.50 at the Brown Bookstore, concluded with a series of recommendations. First was for Brown to "tell the truth in all its complexity." Second, was to create a memorial commemorating the university's — and Rhode Island's — ties to the slave trade.

The third recommendation read, in part: "We believe that Brown, by virtue of its history, has a special opportunity and obligation to foster research and teaching on the issues broached in this report, including slavery and other forms of historic and contemporary injustice, movements to promote human rights, and struggles over meaning of individual and institutional responsibility. We recommend the establishment of a scholarly center dedicated to these questions."

But then five years passed. The undergraduate population regenerated, with graduates taking with them much of the furor over Brown's potential response to its history. According to a May 2012 Brown Daily Herald article, controversy gave way to apathy. The report, the article said was, "essentially forgotten."

That month, Bogues was named the director of a new academic center on campus: the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. After a few preliminary events and an open house in the fall, in February they began hosting lectures, film screenings (Lincoln, Amistad), musical performances, and panel discussions about mass incarceration and the lasting legacies of slavery. The programs are explicitly public, both in who is invited to attend and participate.

The week before the Django screening, a panel discussion called "Contemporary Forms of Human Bondage" featured Raymond Watson, director of the Mount Hope Neighborhood Association, discussing the differences between forced labor, slavery, human trafficking, and debt bondage. Next to him was Brown student Mariela Martinez, the daughter of sweatshop laborers in Los Angeles, who described her work interviewing factory workers in central America and organizing for Brown's Student Labor Alliance. Next to her was an activist from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and his translator (also an activist), who told students about an upcoming protest at a Wendy's in Providence against the chain's refusal to sign the Fair Food Program on behalf of underpaid tomato workers.

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