Confronting the Legacy of Slavery and the Slave Trade: Brown University Investigates Its Painful Past

Article excerpt

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 transatlantic 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 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. …


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