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Panel: Brown U. should own up to slavery ties

Brown University should invite new reflection of its role in the slave trade, a panel studying the issue said Wednesday, recommending creation of a memorial and an academic center focused on slavery and justice.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Brown University should invite fresh reflection of its history involving slave trade without bringing shame, a panel studying the issue said Wednesday and recommended the creation of a memorial and an academic center focused on slavery and justice.

The 17-member Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice offered several recommendations on how the university should take responsibility, including a commitment from the school to recruit and retain minority students, especially those from Africa and the West Indies.

“We cannot change the past,” according to the 106-page report, released on the university’s Web site. “But an institution can hold itself accountable for the past, accepting its burdens and responsibilities along with its benefits and privileges.”

In 2003, Brown President Ruth Simmons, the first black president of an Ivy League school and a descendant of slaves herself, appointed the committee of students, faculty and administrators to study the university’s centuries-old ties to the slave trade.

Brown, the nation’s seventh oldest university, was formally chartered in 1764 as the College of Rhode Island. Its founder, the Rev. James Manning, freed his only slave but accepted donations from slave owners and traders, including the Brown family of Providence. One family member, Nicholas Brown Jr., is the university’s namesake.

The panel said there was no question that much of the money used to create Brown and ensure its early growth came either directly or indirectly from the slave trade.

As part of its research, the committee had discovered a document hanging in University Hall — the oldest building on campus — that mentions slaves whose labor helped build it. In addition, the committee says it identified roughly 30 members of the college’s governing corporation who owned or captained slave ships.

‘Crime against humanity’
The report traces the university’s centuries-old link to slave traders, calling slavery a “crime against humanity” that left an ugly legacy of discrimination and a wide gulf between rich and poor. It describes how Brown’s endowment benefited from slave owners’ contributions and says the university is accepting responsibility for “its part in grievous crimes.”

Although the committee said Brown needs to help those disadvantaged by the legacy of the slave trade, it does not recommend creating scholarships specifically for black students. Although the report said the idea is logical, it would run counter to Brown’s current policy of offering scholarships based on need.

The report also makes no recommendation on whether or how Brown should make monetary reparations, which Simmons has maintained was never part of the committee’s responsibility.

Simmons said in a letter to the Brown community on Wednesday that the committee would hold a series of public forums to discuss the report, with the first one scheduled for Nov. 1.