Brown’s landmark slavery and justice center celebrates 10 years of high-impact scholarship

The Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, founded in the 2012-13 academic year, has become a leading force for original research, international engagement and public conversation on the legacies of racial slavery.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A decade ago, when the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice opened its doors on the Brown University campus, its stated mission was simple but powerful: to walk on two legs.

One leg, as CSSJ Director Anthony Bogues put it, represented the historical wrongs of racial slavery. The other represented the contemporary need for justice. One leg cannot walk without the other’s assistance, Bogues explained: When societies acknowledge and atone for past injustices, they can begin grappling with present-day injustices. When they ignore or forget painful parts of the past, injustices persist.

“We live in a world shaped by our historic past,” Bogues said. “History is a complex process in human living because all matters not dealt with, all matters not confronted, reappear in new guises, in new questions and issues which we need to face.”

Founded at Brown in the 2012-13 academic year, the CSSJ aimed to illuminate how slavery shaped New England, the United States and beyond, Bogues said, and to confront the ways in which those legacies continue to adversely shape the lives of Black and Indigenous people.

“Racial slavery and the dispossession of Indigenous peoples made America and much of the modern world, but conventional history downplays both,” Bogues said. “CSSJ’s mission is to tell the complex story of how racial slavery shaped the past and present through scholarship, through public exhibitions, through conversations. We believe that sharing an unflinching account of history can catalyze the important work we need to do to pursue racial justice today.”

A decade later — as the center gets set for its 10th anniversary celebration in late March at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, a longtime partner — CSSJ has become a leading force in the global effort to uncover the full truth about racial slavery, drawing crucial connections between historical injustices and systemic inequality today.

Groundbreaking research by faculty and students affiliated with the center is making its way into high-profile films, books and exhibitions, shaping international conversations on slavery’s legacy. Through unprecedented partnerships with museums and academic centers across four continents, the center is unearthing never-before-heard stories and stunning revelations about slavery and colonialism. And its multitude of education and outreach activities in Rhode Island and beyond is enriching young people’s understanding of American history by, in part, setting the record straight on New England’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.

“Higher education is uniquely positioned to tackle society’s most pressing challenges, including the complex legacies of racial slavery,” said Brown President Christina H. Paxson. “Through rigorous scholarship, compelling conversations and engagement with Black and Indigenous communities across the globe, CSSJ is delivering powerful new insights on the history and reverberating effects of slavery. The center is helping communities around the world understand how the past is present.”

Reimagining New England history

The CSSJ’s origins date back to the early 2000s, when Ruth Simmons, then the president of Brown, charged a committee of faculty, staff and students that embarked on an investigation into the University’s historical relationship with the transatlantic slave trade. The watershed Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, first published in 2006, paved the way for similar historical reckonings at more than 100 other colleges and universities in the United States and beyond. 

The report also paved the way for the center itself: The committee recommended, among other things, that Brown establish a major research and teaching initiative focused on “slavery and other forms of historic and contemporary injustice, movements to promote human rights, and struggles over the meaning of individual and institutional responsibility.” The CSSJ opened six years later, with Bogues as director.

In just a decade, the center has earned global recognition for its high-impact scholarship — much of which is reshaping conversations about slavery’s legacy.

CSSJ’s mission is to tell the complex story of how racial slavery shaped the past and present through scholarship, through public exhibitions, through conversations.

Anthony Bogues Director, Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice
Portrait of Anthony Bogues

Among those driving crucial reckonings with slavery are CSSJ-affiliated faculty. Associate Professor of History Seth Rockman was featured in an episode of the 2023 docuseries “The 1619 Project,” where he drew connections between worker exploitation today and the enslaved people who built schools, houses of worship and more in North America’s first English colonies. And Associate Professor of History Linford Fisher has recently partnered with other Brown scholars, volunteers and Native American leaders to recover thousands of Indigenous enslavement records and share them in an online repository called Stolen Relations, drawing widespread attention to a topic rarely broached in school history lessons.

“Indigenous slavery operated in this semi-legal realm and wasn’t always called ‘slavery,’” Fisher said. “As a result, the documentation is much more sparse, and it takes more work to turn up these stories. I hope the project will ultimately become a resource that is not only beneficial to researchers and educators but also to public historians, genealogists and tribal nations… [because] this is not just an add-on to the story of colonization. This is fundamental to how the English succeeded in colonizing the Northeast.”

Another partnership with communities across New England — made possible by a $4.9 million grant to the CSSJ from the Mellon Foundation in 2021 — is generating new insights on the relationship between European colonization in North America, the dispossession of Native American land and racial slavery in New England. Working with Williams College and the Mystic Seaport Museum, the CSSJ is using regional maritime history as a basis for studying historical injustices across New England, while supporting the work and amplifying the voices of descendant and impacted communities. Ultimately, the project will yield a Spring 2024 Mystic Seaport Museum exhibition and a community publication that will generate new insights on race, subjugation and power in New England, drawing on both historical and contemporary narratives.

The collaborative project, titled “Reimagining New England Histories: Historical Injustice, Sovereignty and Freedom,” has created new work and study opportunities at all three institutions, particularly for scholars, curators and students from underrepresented groups. One of many such opportunities is a Williams-hosted 2023 summer institute that will allow Brown and Williams students to hone their research skills while learning about sailing and social justice. 

Bogues said the project has also created and strengthened long-term relationships between the center and the people and communities whose ancestors experienced dispossession and racial slavery — important, he said, because some of the center’s work revolves around issues of reparative justice.

“A myth in the founding narrative of the United States is the idea of New England as a ‘city on the hill,’ a place founded on the idea of liberty for all,” Bogues said. “But it is important to consider that this site of America’s founding was also a site of Native dispossession as well as racial slavery. Brown has told stories about both of those histories, but rarely have we explored the relationship between the two.”

Forging global connections

Working closely with partners like the Mystic Seaport Museum, Bogues said, is part of a broader effort to make CSSJ’s high-impact scholarship available to the general public.

“We asked ourselves, how can we create a center that not only does the important scholarly work, but that also carries that work into stimulating and catalyzing discussions?” Bogues said. “We then hit upon the idea that museums, second only to schools, are the places where most people learn about history.”

Early in its development, CSSJ carved out its own exhibition space, where it shares educational and visually compelling displays on the history of slavery, insights into the cultural practices of the African diaspora and more. Its exhibition space on Waterman Street is currently home to the exhibition “Serving A Plate Back Home,” an audio and photo series focused on Providence restaurant owners whose menus are rooted in their Latinx and Caribbean heritage.

But CSSJ’s role in developing exhibitions extends further. Together with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the center established the Global Curatorial Project, a worldwide collective of museums and other institutions dedicated to gathering and sharing stories about the long shadow cast by racial slavery and colonialism. The group, whose members span four continents, is now at work on an oral history project called Unfinished Conversations, a collection of recorded public conversations, video narratives and audio interviews that shed light on how slavery and colonialism shaped certain communities and the world as a whole. 

Thanks to funding from the Abrams Foundation, scholars at the CSSJ and at partner institutions have already gathered dozens of stories from Senegal, South Africa, the United Kingdom, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Belgium, Brazil and beyond that address the question, “How did slavery shape this place?” Some of those stories will be included in a traveling exhibition tentatively titled “In Slavery’s Wake,” co-curated by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and opening there in December 2024.

“This kind of oral history project has never been done before,” Bogues said. “Many will, for the first time, hear the voices and memories of people whose personal experiences are still inextricably tied to racial slavery, the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism. These moving and revealing conversations will demonstrate why we are not finished reckoning with the past.” 

Leading public historians have taken notice of the CSSJ’s growing influence — and they’ve enlisted the center’s help in telling the global story of slavery.

In 2017, 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,” tapped students and faculty at the CSSJ for help researching a forthcoming documentary that will chart the economic and human cost of the slave trade across the Atlantic basin. The four-part documentary, “Creating the New World: The Transatlantic Slave Trade,” is expected to air on PBS.

Students at Brown enriched Nelson’s historical narrative through independent research projects that drew on their own strengths and scholarly interests. In 2019, while studying for an Atlantic history course, Class of 2021 graduate Jamie Solomon came across a book on enslaved Haitians who rebuilt their lives in Cuba, which proved critical to Nelson’s effort to spotlight untold stories. And Kaela Hines, a Class of 2022 graduate, spent part of Fall 2019 reading the diary of a British official stationed in the slave-trading port of Calabar, Nigeria.

“I feel that the research we do is important and will educate people about a topic that is generally known, but often not in the intricacies we are researching,” Hines said.

The CSSJ’s robust public-facing research initiatives don’t end there. The center is home to a number of research clusters that reach across multiple disciplines, focusing on such topics as structural racism in biomedicine and the complexities of modern-day slavery. 

As part of a research cluster on human trafficking, Assistant Professor of American Studies Elena Shih recently worked with the grassroots collective Red Canary Song to host a thought-provoking art exhibition and talk on the one-year anniversary of the Atlanta massage spa shooting. The event gave members of the Brown and Providence communities a rare chance to hear from massage workers, community organizers and artists who shared a variety of perspectives on human trafficking in the U.S. And for the last six years, the research cluster on race, medicine and social justice, led by Professor of Medical Studies and Africana Studies Lundy Braun, has investigated 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.

As a faculty fellow of the research cluster on mass incarceration and punishment, Associate Professor of Sociology Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve has enlisted Brown students’ help to build the largest public archive of mass incarceration in the U.S. Founded in 2021 with seed funding from the Mellon Foundation and Brown’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, the Mass Incarceration Lab has grown into a collection of more than 200 accounts from people who are incarcerated and others who have felt the impact of mass incarceration. 

Van Cleve explained that sharing incarcerated people’s stories brings more visibility to the links between historical slavery, anti-Black racism and crime and punishment in the U.S.

“Students in my undergraduate and graduate classes are taking great care to preserve the stories and powerful testimonies of so many people who have lived through and found life after incarceration,” Van Cleve said. “That act of preservation is important: It adds dimension and nuance to the story of incarceration in America, and it exposes the flaws inherent in our criminal justice system.”

Empowering the next generation

In addition to forging connections with the public through exhibitions and films, Bogues said the CSSJ has committed to reaching young people through curricular development. 

In 2020, the center worked with Brown’s Choices Program — an arm of the Department of History that develops research-informed curriculum units for secondary school teachers — to create a high school curriculum focused on how the past shapes present issues such as white supremacy and anti-Black racism. The curriculum covers more than four centuries of Atlantic history, focusing not only on how enslaved people experienced and resisted systems of oppression but also on how the legacies of racial slavery still affect the world today. Bogues said the center is now developing a high school curriculum that reimagines the history of New England by prioritizing the perspectives of Black and Indigenous people.

In 2021, CSSJ established the Reimagining New England Histories Summer Institute, an annual opportunity for high school students. Developed in partnership with the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology and the Tomaquag Museum, the two-week summer institute invites young scholars to study and think critically about the histories and experiences of Indigenous and African American people in the Northeast. Activities in 2021 included a trip to Misquamicut State Beach to learn Indigenous clam-digging techniques, a maritime rope-making tutorial at Mystic Seaport Museum and a tour of historical landmarks around College Hill.

Cate McDonough, a rising junior from Cranston, R.I., and a member of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, said she enrolled in the summer institute to build the knowledge needed to challenge traditional historical narratives.

“By learning and being here, I hope to speak up more and not feel like I’m a bother or that my existence is difficult or an extra step for people,” she said. “Black and Indigenous histories should be a bigger part of our curriculum, and I hope to have the strength and knowledge to stand up and advocate for it.”

“ History shouldn’t be treated as secondary to the present; it’s part and parcel to this moment. ”

Anthony Bogues Director, Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice

In Fall 2022, the center also created an enrichment program for motivated high school students who have their own research projects related to slavery and justice. Nada Samih-Rotondo, CSSJ’s manager of public education initiatives and community outreach, said she is currently working with students from Classical High School and the Met School to research topics as diverse as the history of African American fashion, Black maternal health and youth advocacy — helping them strengthen their research skills, connecting them with Brown scholars and more. 

And the center continues to offer regular Slavery and Legacy Walking Tours on College Hill, providing K-12 students and adults alike the chance to learn more about the complicated history of Brown’s founding and some Providence residents’ leading roles in the transatlantic slave trade.

The conversation continues

Thanks to sustained support from grants and generous donors, Bogues believes CSSJ’s next 10 years will deliver even higher-impact scholarship, conversations and community engagement. In addition, he said, the center’s future could include additional teaching, with a multitude of course offerings focused on slavery and justice, and expanded public humanities programs, aimed not only at expanding the public’s knowledge on the making of the Americas but also at training the next generation of museum curators, preservation specialists and historians.

For now, Bogues said, the center will continue to fulfill the mission upon which it was founded: to ensure a brighter future for the globe by sharing the truth of its past.

“History shouldn’t be treated as secondary to the present; it’s part and parcel to this moment ,” Bogues said. “Twenty years ago, Brown paid serious attention to its history, and it inspired a national movement to better understand and grapple with the Black and Indigenous labor that built our nation. It gave us a new perspective on the structural inequalities we face today. So it is our obligation to continue complicating history, because that work makes a difference.”