Date January 10, 2019
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For Brown’s slavery and justice center, a legacy of scholarship at the five-year mark

Launched after Brown’s landmark Slavery and Justice report, the center is a powerhouse for research that is changing the way the world learns about legacies of slavery and the global slave trade.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Immediately upon opening its doors in 2012, Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice (CSSJ) launched a rich yearlong series of programs that asked critical questions about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, its legacies and ramifications for the present.

What were the conditions on the ships used to bring slaves to America? What kinds of knowledge — political, religious, agricultural, artistic and otherwise — did enslaved people create? And what were the links between slavery and present-day phenomena like racial profiling and human trafficking?

While new research centers are often forgiven for deliberate start-up periods, the CSSJ had anything but that, drawing crowds to its many events. Then, as now, its programs enabled Brown and the larger community to ask big questions about subjects often suppressed.

Part of this work includes bringing distinguished scholars and others active in historical and contemporary civil and workers’ rights movements to Brown. But far more than a host or presenter, the CSSJ is an actor — embarking on new research, projects and programs that address pressing issues related to slavery and its legacies, from questions about memorials perceived as racist to how race impacts health disparities to the status of voting rights today. 

“The CSSJ is a center in the world,” said Anthony Bogues, the CSSJ’s founding director. “It does not just reside in the academic space. Sometimes the academy tends to be isolated from the world, but we are engaged with it. We have no other option, because the issues and questions we work on demand rigorous scholarship and are critical to the world we live in today.”

Truth in all its complexity

To serve its public humanities mission, the CSSJ constantly reaches beyond the walls of Brown, Bogues says. But its foundation is tied inextricably to the University’s efforts to grapple with its own history through the work of its Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, commissioned in 2003 by then-President Ruth J. Simmons.

Simmons asked the committee to examine the University’s historical entanglement with slavery and the slave trade and to report its findings. In 2006, the committee issued its final report, which detailed how Brown alumni, Corporation members and members of its namesake family participated in the slave trade, and catalogued the objects, buildings and images on campus that honored those involved. It also discussed how the trade operated in New England and how abolitionist and anti-slavery movements manifested around campus.

The report was a watershed moment, scholars say: In publicly confronting the University’s direct ties to slavery, Brown openly addressed its past and examined how that past impacts the present. Among other recommendations, the committee suggested creating a center that would continue the work of confronting traumatic histories and, as Simmons said, “tell the truth in all its complexity.”

The Rev. David Collins, an associate professor of history at Georgetown University, says that Brown’s process for telling the truth about its past, and identifying a means of taking responsibility for it, was striking because it proceeded from Simmons’ casting the effort as a moral imperative. When Collins was asked to chair Georgetown’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation, created in 2015 to study Georgetown’s ties to slavery, he said, “reading Brown’s report was one of the first things I did.”

The report, he says, was valuable as a model because it began with a moral analysis and was not antiseptic, overly academic, or something to be filed away after it was published. “Brown showed how a university could tap into the problem in a manner proper to a university, using its greatest resources,” he said, including the ability to conduct in-depth research, inspire learning and develop relationships.

Since Brown issued its landmark 2006 report, a number of other institutions have launched similar efforts to explore ties to slavery, citing Brown as a model and inspiration. The University of Virginia (UVA) convened a consortium called Universities Studying Slavery in 2014, which now has 45 members. UVA’s website describes Brown’s effort as “pioneering” work that “has long stood as the gold standard for how to embark.”

As the work of the center proceeded from that point, the University, under the leadership of President Christina Paxson, has implemented a strategic action plan for advancing Brown’s excellence and confronting the historical legacy of not meaningfully including all community members. Via the 2016 plan, Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion: An Action Plan for Brown University, the University has taken concrete steps to create a more diverse and inclusive academic community.

In 2018-19, as the CSSJ marks the culmination of its first five years and begins the latter half of its initial decade of scholarship, its faculty, staff and students continue to expand the center’s robust research and public-facing initiatives. The center is home to a number of research clusters focused on slavery and abolition, contemporary human trafficking, a comparative history of slavery, the American criminal justice system and structural racism in biomedicine.

The latter, titled “Race, Medicine and Social Justice” is led by Lundy Braun, a professor of medical science and Africana studies. With faculty and graduate students from history, sociology, American studies, Africana studies, public health and biology, along with students from the Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School, the group researches the history of race and racism in biomedicine. An area of great concern, Braun says, is how fixed ideas about race impact the diagnosis and treatment of disease, causing doctors and researchers to ignore or underestimate social and environmental explanations for health disparities.

“Why do we produce the knowledge we do, and why do we produce the kind of research we produce — those are the questions we ask,” Braun said.

The researchers are working to develop alternatives that reimagine how biomedical research can best produce knowledge. Group members apply what they learn to their own research areas and to their teaching, Braun says. Participants explore approaches to teaching and discuss what it means and how it works to teach students about race and racism in the life sciences and the social sciences.

The CSSJ’s research clusters have produced many exhibition catalogs including "Makers Unknown" and "Unfinished Business: The Long Civil Rights Movement," launched Undergraduate Teaching and Research Award projects, created curricula at the secondary school level, convened networks of scholars at conferences, and explored the history of 20th century African American struggles for freedom and equality, Bogues says.

Global and local impact

Because slavery and the slave trade was something of “world-historic proportions,” as Bogues says, the center works with institutions across the globe to bring rigor to the way the history of slavery is studied and presented. With the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NAAMHC), the CSSJ convenes the Global Curatorial Project (GCP), a group of curators from major museums in South Africa, Senegal, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the United States.

Since 2014, GCP members have met to discuss and improve upon curatorial practices for exhibitions on slavery and colonialism.

“We are very proud of our work with CSSJ,”  said Paul Gardullo, supervisory museum curator at the NMAAHC and director of the Center for the Study of Global Slavery. “We see it as essential to forge new relationships amongst museums and research institutions, as well as between public institutions and their audiences in order to make museums and universities into sites more relevant to addressing questions of repair, reckoning, reconciliation and justice.”

The CSSJ has also established itself as a resource for public-facing projects.

Award-winning director and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Stanley J. Nelson Jr., who has examined the history and experiences of African Americans in films like “Freedom Riders,” enlisted the help of the CSSJ for a forthcoming documentary that will chart the economic and human cost of the slave trade across the Atlantic basin.

While the structures of wealth created by the worldwide circulation of commodities like sugar, cotton, tobacco and other goods produced by slaves has been researched and documented, according to Bogues, less publicly understood is the slave trade itself and the economic, social and political consequences in Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and North and South America.

The CSSJ worked with Nelson’s Firelight Media to bring together the best and most recent scholarship on this less understood aspect of slavery. According to Naz Habtezghi, a Firelight producer, partnering with the CSSJ was critical to the team’s effort to spotlight this untold story while honoring the complexity and humanity of  its subject.

The work of the CSSJ and the Steering Committee’s report has also impacted how the history of slavery is represented locally.

Sean Siperstein, an attorney who graduated in from Brown in 2005, was a member of an undergraduate group research project that worked in tandem with the Steering Committee. The students researched and created an exhibition on the Sally, a slave ship owned by Brown family members. During a 1764 voyage to Africa, Captain Esek Hopkins captured 196 Africans who were to be auctioned off as slaves, the exhibition explains. At least 109 of those Africans died, some during a failed insurrection and others by suicide, starvation and disease.

Siperstein recalled visiting the John Brown House — the historic home of one of the family members who owned the ship — as an undergraduate and asking the tour guide there about John Brown’s role in the local slave trade.

“There was nothing about slavery in the display materials,” Siperstein said. “I think my question made the tour guide nervous.”

At that time, there seemed to be hesitancy about openly addressing local involvement in the slave trade, Siperstein says. But now, because of the work of the Steering Committee and CSSJ, the Sally exhibition that he worked on is on display at the John Brown House, and Brown Family Weekend programming includes a Slavery and Legacy Walking Tour of Providence that was designed by two high school-aged CSSJ interns.

Beyond internships such as those, Bogues says the CSSJ frequently engages with students through tours and exhibitions and through its Civil Rights Movement Initiative (CRMI), in which students from Providence’s Hope High School take a six-week course and spend a week traveling to historic sites and museums in the South, meeting with movement veterans and activists.

“I have been teaching in Providence for 28 years and I have seen few programs with the impact of CRMI,” said Jonathan Goodman, a teacher at Hope High. Goodman said the program changes how the students think about their school and their identity and changes their intellectual focus. “That my students and I are presented with this history is an essential gift,” he added.

Embarking on a journey both intellectual and oftentimes emotional is not always easy for students, says Sara Jackson, a Hope High graduate and CRMI participant.

“When I was faced with the option of becoming a part of this program, I was reluctant to join,” Jackson said. “The reality is, I was very aware of my ignorance and I didn’t want to confront the emotions that go hand in hand with learning your history.”

But, she said, the trip sponsored by the CSSJ was life-changing.

“This trip taught me that in the end, what you do with the lessons you learn, good or bad, is what makes you a brave person,” Jackson said.

As the CSSJ advances its current programs and develops new avenues of work, Bogues says that having conversations with the entire student body, interested faculty and alumni will be critical in shaping the directions of the center. On the horizon are two new research clusters, a planned high school textbook and a new graduate seminar.

For Siperstein, who is engaged with the work of the CSSJ as an alumnus and as co-chair of the Friends of the CSSJ, the center’s work is energizing, and its existence fulfills the promise of the Steering Committee’s efforts.

“The entire idea of the Steering Committee’s charge was to grapple with history as a University, as a continuous subject, and then not just grapple but take these steps,” Siperstein said. “That we want to understand and learn from past is reflected in the center’s existence, in its work and mission.”