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Digging Up the Foundations

By Perla Montas and Meghan Sullivan

“Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks — and Racist Too.” This title headlined David Horowitz’s full-page anti-reparations advertisement, printed in the Brown Daily Herald (BDH) on March 13, 2001. The flyer featured quotes like, “If not for the sacrifices of white soldiers… blacks in America would still be slaves,” and implied that African-Americans should be grateful for white peoples’ “sacrifices” in freeing them. It was part of an advertising campaign waged by Horowitz, a conservative American author, to combat the overwhelming “liberal orthodoxy” in US colleges. In the 47 universities that Horowitz solicited, most publications rejected the advertisement. But the BDH accepted and, in the following weeks, suffered the backlash from the inflammatory pamphlet — student protestors, furious that Horowitz was given a platform to express his offensive views, seized 4,000 copies of the paper the Friday after the ad ran.

Four months after the Horowitz controversy, Ruth Simmons took the oath of office in University Hall and became the 18th President of Brown — and the first African-American president of an Ivy League institution. In her first convocation address, Simmons came out in support of unbridled free expression: “The protection of speech that is offensive or insulting to us is one of the most difficult things that we do. But it is this same freedom that protects us when we are, in turn, powerless.” Simmons’ attitude towards the issue carried extraordinary weight, both as president and the great-great granddaughter of American slaves.

The BDH controversy died down in the months following her inauguration, and Simmons focused on reviving a stagnating university. But in 2003, Simmons embarked on a new project: She appointed a steering committee which would execute an official investigation of Brown’s historic ties to the Atlantic slave trade and American slavery. Simmons later commented that she wanted to expose the reparations debate of 2001 to “time honored academic methods.”

The Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice was an unprecedented initiative for an American academic institution. Unitversities pointedly overlooked how slavery factored into their individual histories, and Brown risked unearthing disgraceful or embarrassing truths. After two years of investigation, the Committee compiled a comprehensive report that illustrates Brown’s conflicted history — one of compliance, political activism, capitalist interest and religious zeal, but most importantly of rigorous intellectual discourse. Brown has served as a battleground on which Quakers and slave traders, abolitionists and anti-abolitionists, and reparation advocates and disputants have debated America’s most painful legacy.

The Committee’s findings show that Brown’s establishment and growth was inextricably linked to slavery. At least 30 members of the school’s original corporation owned or captained slave ships. During the University’s first endowment campaign, Baptist minister Hezekiah Smith visited South Carolina and collected 3,700 Carolina pounds from plantation owners to fund the fledgling university. Even the construction of University Hall bears a dark stain. Donors to its construction pledged materials and labor, and records show at least four enslaved African Americans helped lay the stones of the building Simmons sat in 231 years later as president.

However, the first decades of Brown’s existence in the late 1700s were permeated by slave trade activism and debate. Founders of the Providence Abolition Society sat alongside slave traders on Brown’s governing board. The University’s commencement oration in 1790 became one of the most riveting antislavery speeches in American history: Brunonian John Tallmadge spoke before leading members of the Rhode Island community and claimed that slavery offended the laws of God and violated the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Four decades later, Rhode Island abolished slavery but the national conversation continued. While Brown didn’t ban the discussion of abolition on campus like Harvard did, it didn’t formally support the abolition movement either. Similar to other Ivy League schools, Brown was home to a multitude of Southerners and had deeply rooted connections to the South. But thanks to the leadership of then-President Francis Wayland, an opponent of slavery and strong believer in intellectual dialogue, Brown became a campus that encouraged debate and discussion of slavery’s political and moral challenges. Brown’s Steering Committee report describes widespread dialogue on campus during this period. Phi Beta Kappa lectures addressed questions of whether slavery was consistent with American morals and whether different races had the same mental capacities. Brown students reportedly heckled abolitionist Wendell Phillips as he spoke at a Providence church in 1845, but they also helped found the Providence chapter of the American Antislavery Society.

The United States eradicated its “peculiar institution” through bloodshed, not reasoned discourse, but open dialogue has remained a pillar of Brown University. Ruth Simmons has continued this tradition by initiating the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. Simmons said that, regardless of any negative repercussions, the Committee’s most critical purpose was discovering and acknowledging the University’s past. At the recommendation of the Committee, Brown created the Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence, an endowment fund for Providence public schools, with a target of $10 million. The University also commissioned a slavery memorial on its campus coinciding with Brown’s 250th anniversary.

About the Author

Official news from behind-the-scenes at the Brown Political Review.