Scholars, leaders reflect on Brown’s transformative Slavery and Justice Report

University leaders, faculty, alumni and students gathered on Friday, Nov. 12, to celebrate a new second edition of the report, discuss the original report’s legacy and debate what work remains at Brown and beyond.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — For Kevin Boyce, Brown University has long represented hope and opportunity. It is a place, he said, that has given myriad Black students like him a chance to make some of their greatest aspirations come true.

On the other hand, the University can be a reminder of pain, both historical and more recent.

“This very campus that we stand on today was built on the lands of Native peoples, and its buildings were erected on the backs of the labor of enslaved Africans,” the Class of 2021 graduate said. “For generations, faces that looked like mine were not welcomed here.”

Boyce, now a master’s student in public affairs, decided to attend Brown in part because its leaders chose to reckon with that complex history 15 years ago — and because it continues to do so today.

“Brown is not perfect by any means, but it stood out among its peers as the institution that was best at working toward understanding its role in undoing harm,” Boyce said. “What this report represents to me and many others is that it is a start of our efforts to repair and rebuild what oftentimes people in our positions have torn down.”

The report he referenced was Brown’s watershed Slavery and Justice Report. On Friday, Nov. 12, Boyce was among hundreds of scholars and community members who gathered on campus and tuned in virtually to reflect on Brown’s ties to the transatlantic slave trade, recognize the University’s role in the ongoing fight for racial justice, and celebrate the release of a revitalized, enriched second edition of the original 2006 report.

Just like the original Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, the second edition, released Friday, confronts the University’s complex history with slavery and its legacies of inequity and injustice. The second edition includes new insights from past and present Brown leaders, faculty, students and alumni, chronicles the last 15 years of progress on campus, and is available both in print and in digital form.

"[The report] really opened up the question, to whom is the university accountable, and whom does it serve?"

Marcia Chatelain, Class of 2008 Professor of History and African American Studies, Georgetown University
Marcia Chatelain

As University President Christina H. Paxson noted at Friday’s event, the 2006 report sparked a national discussion on higher education’s entanglements with slavery, inspiring similar reckonings at more than 100 other colleges and universities. She believes the digital second edition — with its interactive features and a design that allows for equitable use by all, including those with disabilities — could open the door to even wider study on the legacies of historical injustices across the nation and globe.

“The Slavery and Justice Report marks just one example of how higher education can — and has a responsibility to — tackle society’s most pressing challenges,” Paxson said. “My hope is that in our Brown community and within higher education, we will look to the model the report provides and apply it to other complex issues.”

Brown digital scholarship editor Allison Levy, a co-editor of the second edition, offered a walkthrough of its interactive digital experience. The reinvigorated report, she noted, represents Brown’s commitment to constant evolution by offering readers an innovative, intentional and inclusive experience.

“As an open-access publication, it provides enduring, barrier-free access to knowledge,” Levy said. “In other words, it is available to anyone, anywhere, for free.”

Changing lives, changing institutions

The 15-year anniversary presented an opportunity for leaders and scholars at Brown to share how the 2006 report transformed not only higher education but also their own trajectories — and they had plenty of stories to tell.

In a remote video address, President Emerita Ruth J. Simmons — who first convened a steering committee to investigate Brown’s ties to the slave trade in 2003 — said she had no idea what “import and impact” the nascent undertaking would ultimately have. That more than 100 institutions have now followed in Brown’s footsteps, she said, is a testament not only to the nation’s long-suppressed need to grapple with its past reliance on racial slavery, but also to the original report’s insights.

“I asked the committee in its original deliberations to reflect on the obligations we hold in the present as a consequence of what we have learned about our past,” said Simmons, now president of Prairie View A&M University in Texas. “That remains, in my view, an urgent task for this University, for the nation, and for the world. Returning to and enlarging the report in this way, the University shows its deep commitment to the ongoing objective of viewing its future as an institution in the context of this history.”

In a panel discussion moderated by Anthony Bogues — a contributor to the original Slavery and Justice Report and the current director of Brown’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice — 2008 Brown Ph.D. graduate Marcia Chatelain reflected on the ways in which the report brought important but long-buried questions to the forefront of many scholars’ and university administrators’ minds.

“I think [it] really opened up the question, to whom is the university accountable, and whom does it serve?” said Chatelain, a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University. “We think of the stakeholders as the people who keep the lights on: the donors, the parents, the students… What I think the Slavery and Justice Report did [is it] turned that whole notion on its head: What does it mean for the university to be accountable to the enslaved peoples and the dispossessed peoples who allowed the university to exist?”

She said the report’s bold confrontation of truths inspired Georgetown to embark on a similar historical reckoning, which unearthed facts about slavery on the plantations of the Maryland Jesuits who founded the university and kickstarted a funding effort to benefit the descendants of whose who had been enslaved.

"What this report represents to me and many others is that it is a start of our efforts to repair and rebuild what oftentimes people in our positions have torn down."

Kevin Boyce, Class of 2021 Brown MPA Student
Kevin Boyce

For James Campbell — who co-chaired the original Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice with Bogues, and who is now a professor of history at Stanford University — the report unlocked new personal and professional insights. Fellow report contributors took a trip with him to Mississippi in 2004, jump-starting his years-long investigation into the Ku Klux Klan-coordinated death of three Black civil rights activists there. And his role in the report led him to accompany to Sierra Leone the descendant of a woman born on the slave ship Sally, whose 1764 voyage had been funded by four Brown brothers — John, Joseph, Moses and Nicholas.

Seth Rockman, an associate professor of history at Brown, said the report not only enabled him to take part in a groundbreaking research project with “some of Brown’s most talented undergraduates,” but it also allowed him to watch those students graduate and apply what they had learned through their contributions to the 2006 report to impactful careers in politics, medicine and education. Among those graduates is Seth Magaziner, Rhode Island’s general treasurer; Brianna Larkin, a high school history teacher in Oakland, California; and Dr. Rachel Bedard, the first and perhaps only dedicated prison-based geriatrician in the country.

Seeing a new generation effect change, Rockman said, helped him believe in the tenets of the report — “that if we tell the truth about the past in all its complexity…we can move beyond trauma, shame and denial, to a world in which everyone can prosper and thrive.”

A new standard for equity

Still, Rockman acknowledged, “telling the truth is necessary but not sufficient.”

The Slavery and Justice Report, he said, wasn’t entirely about truth-telling. Along with a full history of the University’s historical entanglements with racial slavery, the committee presented a series of recommendations to the University. Those recommendations directly inspired much of the change the University enacted — including establishing the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, commissioning a Slavery Memorial on the Quiet Green, and creating a permanently endowed Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence.

But against the backdrop of renewed reckoning with anti-Black racism in America — spurred by high-profile police killings of Black Americans, new voter suppression efforts among legislators and rising economic inequality along racial lines — Rockman and others at Friday’s event agreed that the nation and world are in a much different place today than in 2006, and it is abundantly clear that much work remains for Brown.

That’s why, Paxson said, the University has moved beyond the committee’s recommendations to embrace a new standard for commitment to equity. In the last year, it convened a Task Force on Anti-Black Racism and announced new initiatives to expand financial aid and increase college access, specifically focusing on Providence high school students. And in 2016, it developed the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, creating a roadmap for transforming the culture and practices that have led to the exclusion of people from historically underrepresented groups in higher education.

“The DIAP went from a well-formulated concept of a tool that gave the entire campus ownership and responsibility for creating a more inclusive community,” said Sylvia Carey-Butler, Brown’s vice president for institutional equity and diversity. “It helped to illuminate the bright pathway for Brown to be the standard bearer for diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education. I applaud the big and small gains that have been accomplished through the University’s approach to equity and justice.”

"I look forward to the ongoing collaborations across this university, to holding ourselves, myself, all of us accountable so that we can continue to thrive."

Sylvia Carey-Butler Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity
Sylvia Carey-Butler

In a Q&A session during the event, one audience member asserted that the University should work to identify the descendants of slaves tied to Brown’s early benefactors and begin paying them reparations. Bogues, Campbell and Chatelain noted the inherent complexities of deciding who is “deserved” of reparations, in what form and what for each individual feels fair.

“The question of reparations today cannot be off the table, but it has got to be reparations [that involve discussions] with the communities,” Bogues said. “You can’t sit down in University Hall and say, ‘These are the kinds of reparations we’re going to make.’ We are in a community. We sit on Indigenous lands. Racial slavery helped to build the University. How do we deal with the fact of who we are, where we are?”

That the Slavery and Justice Report ultimately inspired the DIAP and so many additional impactful initiatives at Brown, whether directly or indirectly, is proof that it is more than an account of one institution’s historical ties to the slave trade, Campbell said: It is also a powerful exemplar that truth-telling through scholarship can bring about real, meaningful change, helping to repair the wounds inflicted by racial slavery.

“We make politics in the present based on the assumptions and ideas of the past,” Campbell said. “If we can change the way in which people understand the past, why the world looks as it does, then we could alter the matrix of possibility in the present.”

The report is also, Campbell noted, a profound testament to universities’ leading roles advancing knowledge about the most vexing issues the world faces today — even when controversial, and especially in a world in which facts and truth often take a back seat to ideologies aligned with one political agenda or the next.

“I’m mad sometimes at my students, both when I was here at Brown and now at Stanford, because they are ready to burn University Hall down,” Campbell said. “And I always want to say to them, ‘Look, I’ll share whatever critiques of universities you have — but these institutions are flickering candles in a very dark world.'”