Fifteen years after its publication, Brown’s watershed Slavery and Justice Report is reinvigorated

A second edition of Brown’s landmark report, which sparked a national conversation on higher education’s entanglements with racial slavery, offers new insights on the document’s persistent and evolving impact.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Fifteen years after publishing a groundbreaking report on its own historical ties to the transatlantic slave trade, Brown University has released an expanded second edition of the report amid renewed national conversation on slavery’s legacy.

With new insights on the original text’s national and local impact, the new edition of the Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice offers an unflinching assessment of how far Brown has come in implementing the report’s original recommendations and what remains to be accomplished.

In a foreword to the second edition, Brown President Christina H. Paxson wrote that the expanded report comes in the context of a long-overdue reckoning with the terrible legacies of anti-Black racism. In 2020, millions watched in horror as police violence, and the COVID-19 pandemic, claimed a disproportionate percentage of Black lives — realities that shed light on the indelible connections between historical slavery, anti-Black racism and systemic inequality.

“It is through the lens of these complex issues, inextricably intertwined with the legacies of slavery, that we revisit the Slavery and Justice Report,” Paxson wrote. “American society in the 21st century demands that institutions of higher education continue to evolve and respond to the complex world in which we live as we interpret our past. It is for these reasons that we are publishing this second edition of the report.”

Published on Friday, Nov. 12, the second edition of the report is available through an immersive, interactive digital experience and as a printed book. Both versions include the report’s original text along with reflections and commentary from Paxson, President Emerita Ruth J. Simmons and Brown faculty, staff and alumni. A live-streamed event at Brown beginning at 3 p.m. on Friday will convene leaders from both the original and reimagined reports for a series of discussions.

Upon its release in 2006, the original report made history by publicly confronting and documenting Brown’s complex history with the slave trade and its legacies of anti-Black racism and injustice. Its release fueled critical conversations on Brown’s campus and well beyond. It prompted the University to address persistent issues of inequality and injustice in everything from its teaching and research to its admissions and hiring practices. And it sparked a national discussion on higher education’s entanglements with slavery, inspiring similar reckonings at more than 100 other colleges and universities. 

Despite that progress, institutions of higher education have a responsibility to continuously re-evaluate their progress toward full equity, Paxson wrote.

“Based upon the current state of our country’s — and the world’s — confrontation of systemic racism, we know that the commitment to equity is a perpetual march that will perhaps never be complete,” she wrote. “The fact that we, as a university, have a precedent of commitment to this work is not in and of itself enough to meet our obligation to help create a more fair and just society. It is imperative that our entire community internalizes and bears responsibility for the constant work we must do to reaffirm our commitment to the fight for racial justice. That’s why commissioning this revised and expanded edition of the report is so important.”

In the second edition, 14 essays — penned by past and present scholars at Brown, current and former University leaders, alumni and recent graduates — reflect on the report’s enduring impact, provide new details on the difficulties of compiling the report amid a contentious national moment, and consider the ways in which the document transformed Brown’s approach to addressing issues of equity and injustice.

Anthony Bogues, a Brown professor, director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and contributor to both the 2006 and 2021 reports, said the second edition does more than commemorate the University’s pathbreaking work and celebrate its progress. Through new insights into the report’s creation and impacts, it also asserts that Brown’s push for true full equity will be long and continuous.

“The second edition of the report confirms Brown’s particular position as a higher education institution that pays serious attention to the legacies of its history,” Bogues said. “It sends a message to the world: We are not done; our work continues.”

A quest for truth in all its complexity

Work toward the original Slavery and Justice Report began in 2003, when then-University President Ruth J. Simmons charged the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice — composed of Bogues and 16 other faculty, staff, students and alumni — with collectively producing a full, honest account of the connections between Brown and the transatlantic slave trade.

“When I started at Brown, I heard this question: What was the University’s relationship to the transatlantic slave trade?” Simmons shared in a Q&A with Bogues published in the new edition of the report. “I thought the only way to address it was to come at it very directly and to find the truth. The way to do that, it seemed, was to use the University’s best resources — scholarship and research.”

Over the course of three years, the appointed Steering Committee gathered information on Brown’s past, drawing on published sources and historical archives and working with campus librarians, area museums and historical societies. They also sponsored more than 30 public discussions, forums and film screenings that enriched their understanding of racial slavery’s global legacy.

Years later, with many colleges having launched investigations into fraught pasts, such efforts stir intense controversy much less frequently. But in the early 2000s, the political and social landscape was markedly different, wrote Steering Committee chair James Campbell in an essay published in the report’s second edition.

When the University shared its intentions publicly, “responses in the press ranged from bemused to aghast… and the Committee’s inbox was soon overflowing,” wrote Campbell, now a professor of U.S. history at Stanford University. “Some of those who wrote… were encouraging and proud, but most were hostile and derisive.”

But as the group engaged in research and discussions, their work began to turn the scholarly tide. By the time the committee issued its Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice in 2006, Campbell noted, a handful of other universities had launched their own investigations into ties to racial slavery and the slave trade. Today, the international Universities Studying Slavery consortium housed at the University of Virginia credits Brown as “the institution that inspired all of us to begin our work.”

“Nearly 100 universities in the United States, Canada and Great Britain have trod the path that Brown blazed…” Campbell wrote. “I think it’s fair to say that we have reached an inflection point, in which the idea of a university telling the truth about its past does not seem controversial at all but rather a basic institutional obligation.”

Marcia Chatelain, a Class of 2008 Brown Ph.D. graduate who is now a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University, noted in a second edition essay that when Georgetown undertook its own quest for truth a decade after Brown, its leaders “quickly discovered that such a process would have been unimaginable without the Slavery and Justice Report.” She wrote that institutions are using Brown’s report to guide explorations on everything from the harms done to Indigenous people to land theft at borders, gentrification, displacement and medical racism.

Bogues said the report did more than raise awareness of legacies of slavery in higher education. It also played a major role in steering the national conversation toward a different narrative of American history — one of a country built not only on the ideals of the Enlightenment but also on the backs of enslaved Africans.

“The work we were doing was not purely academic, and not purely about Brown,” Bogues said. “It was an attempt to translate history into public knowledge, to start conversations about how this country began not with the American Revolution but inside the hold of a slave ship. We thought it was important to convey slavery not as a relic of the past but as an institution that continues to shape the present.”

Translating scholarship into impact

Since 2012, Bogues has directed Brown’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice — one of many high-impact outcomes of the original Slavery and Justice Report, which recommended that the University “create a center for continuing research on slavery and justice.”

For nearly a decade, the CSSJ has explored the history and legacies of the transatlantic slave trade and racial slavery through research, study, public conversations, exhibitions and more. The center has become a leader in research that is changing the way the world learns about slavery and the global slave trade. Its scholars have catalyzed international scholarly conversations, curated museum exhibitions that reach millions of people, and contributed historical research to an upcoming PBS documentary.

The legacy of the report also includes an ever-growing breadth of Brown courses touching on repercussions of slavery and anti-Black racism in medicine, media and other areas of society, as well as expanded teaching and research relationships with historically Black colleges and universities.

Yet the report’s influence extends well beyond teaching and learning. Following the Steering Committee’s recommendation to “use the resources of the University to help ensure a quality education for the children of Rhode Island,” Brown established a permanent $10 million endowed Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence, which provides sustainable financial support for initiatives that promote academic excellence and success for current and future generations of K-12 students in Providence. Myriad other teaching, after-school enrichment and local research projects also support city students from underrepresented backgrounds.

And serving as a physical everyday reminder of Brown’s historical ties to the slave trade is “Slavery Memorial” by Martin Puryear, an iron and stone sculpture installed in the center of Brown’s Quiet Green in 2014. The University commissioned the sculpture in response to the committee’s recommendation to “create a living site of memory, inviting reflection and fresh discovery.”

While the University has fulfilled many of the committee’s original recommendations, Paxson said, it has also continued its work well beyond them, evolving in response to a rapidly changing country and world.

In 2016, Brown created a roadmap for the meaningful transformation of culture and practices in Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion: An Action Plan for Brown University. That publication, along with 2021’s DIAP Phase II, has included every member of the Brown community in a sweeping, long-term effort to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in all aspects of academic and campus life.

In Fall 2020, amid a renewed national reckoning with systemic racism in the U.S., Paxson convened a Task Force on Anti-Black Racism made up of students, faculty, staff and alumni; their recommendations are adding to the DIAP’s impact in transforming University policy, culture, curriculum and community engagement. And in 2020 and 2021, all incoming Brown undergraduates joined together to read and discuss a Digital First Readings edition of the Slavery and Justice Report, which provides annotation tools and links to scanned and transcribed historical documents. The shared First Readings experience ensures that students will continue to grapple with Brown’s historical ties to the slave trade for years to come.

“We are a university that will not allow ourselves to fall victim to what the report describes as the ‘inevitable tendencies to deny, extenuate and forget,’” Paxson wrote. “It is through these efforts that the work of the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice continues to live on in real and lasting ways for future generations.”

Re-envisioning the report

To Allison Levy — one of three editors of the reimagined report, with Bogues and Brown Senior Vice President for Communications Cass Cliatt — the expanded Slavery and Justice Report symbolizes Brown’s commitment to constant evolution. As the University Library’s digital scholarship editor, Levy played a lead role in transforming the original report, available only in print and PDF form, into an engaging, interactive digital experience.

"We are a university that will not allow ourselves to fall victim to what the report describes as the ‘inevitable tendencies to deny, extenuate and forget.' It is through these efforts that the work of the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice continues to live on in real and lasting ways for future generations."

Christina H. Paxson Brown University President
Christina Paxson in Brown Commencement regalia

In addition to the newly commissioned essays, the digital second edition includes high-resolution, zoomable images of historical documents referenced in the report and links to full transcriptions of the documents for readers seeking a deeper engagement with the historical sources. The open-access publication is supported by universal design principles for equitable use by all, including those with disabilities.

“Rather than reproduce the report exactly as it appeared in 2006, we wished to acknowledge and celebrate the ongoing impact of this historical document for a new and expanded readership,” Levy said. “We felt it was important to foreground the report not only as a scholarly publication but also as a major historical document in its own right, with essays that present the fuller, richer story of how it came into being and how it transformed higher education’s engagement with histories entangled with slavery.”

By presenting the report and a wide variety of reflections on an enduring, barrier-free digital platform, Levy said, the University has created an open book of its ongoing diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. This is one way that Brown continuously holds itself accountable for unfinished work, offering a potential roadmap for other institutions, and providing inspiration for those engaged in similar work.

Chandra Marshall, a Class of 2020 Brown master’s graduate in public humanities and current program associate at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, wrote in an essay that the report will continue to prompt students, scholars, cultural heritage workers and many others to pose difficult questions and seek out work that centers the histories, legacies and heritage of historically marginalized communities.

“The report’s rigor, intention and fearlessness with respect to the University’s long-shrouded entanglement with the transatlantic slave trade has inspired me to continue asking difficult questions,” Marshall wrote. “Although not all of the suggestions have yet been accomplished, they push the report from being a blueprint outlining a gap in the University’s public record, to offering a pathway toward actively acknowledging and accepting our complex and often unsettling history.”