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Africans in Colonial
New England

Slavery and the Slave Trade in Rhode Island

The Brown Family
and the Slave Trade:
The Voyage of the Sally

Brown University



Exhibition on Slavery

On October 18, 2006, the long-awaited Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice was released on the Brown University website, after three years of intensive research and debate. Much of that research was performed inside the John Carter Brown Library, where one of the world’s great collections of early Americana is housed.

John Carter Brown
John Carter Brown
(circa 1870)
In honor of the report, the John Carter Brown Library mounted an exhibition in the spring of 2007 that displayed many of the materials cited. Included were a large number of books and other documents that told a different story about early America—and early Rhode Island—from the one most familiar to schoolchildren. These documents reveal the inexorable growth of slavery as a labor system, in New England as well as the South.  To a surprising degree, many Rhode Islanders defended slavery, particularly those who were profiting from the slave trade and its many economic dependencies. But from the beginning, there were those who found the idea of slavery in the New World a betrayal of the idealistic possibilities America held out to the world, and Rhode Island nurtured an especially lively opposition to the peculiar institution.  The John Carter Brown Library’s holdings include many documents that record the rise of these principled objections. 

The founders of Brown University included members of both camps, and the debate continued well into the nineteenth century. In the decades before the Civil War, however, Rhode Island grew notably hostile to slavery, and the founder of the Library, John Carter Brown, supported abolitionist causes with great vigor.

No exhibition can fully tell the story of slavery, in all of its tragic dimensions. But through these books and artifacts, we hope to convey a sense of the complexity of early American slavery, its slow rise, its geographical variants, and its countless, endless legacies. We offer this online exhibition—our first—in the hopes that it will stimulate the conversation further.

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