Date March 30, 2023
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Brown University renames Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice in honor of Ruth J. Simmons

In celebration of 10 years of impact and the exceptional generosity of its donors, the center’s new name honors Brown’s president emerita, who sparked a landmark effort to uncover the University’s historical ties to slavery.

WASHINGTON, D.C. [Brown University] — Ten years ago, the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice opened its doors on the Brown University campus, quickly emerging as a leader for research that is changing the way the world learns about the legacies of the slave trade.

Now, in recognition of that decade milestone and the exceptional generosity of Brown donors whose support established a $10 million endowment for CSSJ, the University has named the center in honor of Brown President Emerita Ruth J. Simmons.

It was Simmons whose bold initiative to uncover the University's historical ties to racial slavery resulted in a landmark 2006 report that led to the center’s creation and inspired universities and other organizations around the world to take up the work of investigating their own ties to slavery.

Brown President Christina H. Paxson shared news of the renamed Ruth J. Simmons Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at a 10th-anniversary celebration held on Thursday, March 30, at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

“Under President Simmons’ leadership, Brown became one of the first universities to examine its ties to the transatlantic slave trade with academic rigor and with unflinching honesty,” Paxson said before the event. “Ruth’s bold, enlightened action paved the way for the center, one of the jewels of education and research at Brown, and there is no more fitting tribute than to name the center in her honor.”

Paxson said the naming is a testament to Simmons’ “high-impact leadership and also a recognition of dozens of generous donors who helped the center reach a $10 million fundraising goal this year,” creating an endowment that will provide sustainable financial support for the center’s scholarship and outreach. The celebration at the Museum of African American History and Culture welcomed hundreds of alumni, friends, donors and partners whose support for the center’s mission has proven essential to its impact.

On the eve of the event, Simmons said she was surprised and humbled by the renaming. The former Brown leader, soon to become a president’s distinguished fellow at Rice University and a senior adviser on engagement with historically Black colleges and universities at Harvard University, joined Paxson and center director Anthony Bogues at Thursday’s celebration for a discussion on the CSSJ’s decade of impactful scholarship and its bright future ahead.

“I have been immensely proud of all that the center has accomplished,” Simmons said. “The wide array of research, scholarship and public discourse the center has generated has made it a resource for hundreds of individuals, institutions and nations. I hope that it will continue to interrogate the many forms of slavery and exploitation, serving as a continuing resource to those seeking to address historic wrongs.”

A foundation of support

While the CSSJ was founded in the 2012-13 academic year, its beginnings date back to 2003 — the year Simmons charged a committee of faculty, students and staff that confronted the full truth of Brown’s historical relationship to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.

In 2006, following three years of extensive research and campus conversations, the committee shared its findings in the Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. The authors described in detail how several of Brown’s founders and benefactors participated in and benefited from the slave trade, and recommended a series of actions the University could take to confront its history.  

I have been immensely proud of all that the center has accomplished... I hope that it will continue to interrogate the many forms of slavery and exploitation, serving as a continuing resource to those seeking to address historic wrongs.

Ruth Simmons President Emerita, Brown University
Portrait of Ruth Simmons

The committee’s report didn’t just inspire similar reckonings at dozens more colleges and universities. It also spurred the University — first under Simmons’ leadership, and since under Paxson’s — to commit to new historical commemorations, academic initiatives, community engagement initiatives and K-12 student support, all in the pursuit of greater diversity, equity and inclusion on College Hill and beyond.

The University committed, among other actions, to establishing the CSSJ, appointing Bogues as director. When the center opened, Simmons became chair of its advisory council.

“Ruth Simmons is an extraordinary educator,” Bogues said. “She understood very early that American universities can and should play a role in creating more just and equitable societies — and that that work begins with confronting history in all its complexity. Naming the CSSJ in her honor is deeply appropriate, since the center remains committed to the work she began.”

Bogues said the generous donors who helped to establish the $10 million endowment will prove instrumental in continuing to bring that commitment to life. A lead $5 million gift came from the Wyncote Foundation and Waterman II Fund of the Philadelphia Foundation at the recommendation of David Haas, a 1978 Brown graduate. Haas recalled that when he learned about the Slavery and Justice Report, he felt pride in his alma mater.

“That intentional exploration of Brown’s legacy, done at a time when most universities weren’t doing anything similar, took such great courage,” Haas said. “I was impressed by Ruth Simmons’ deep passion and commitment to probing unresolved questions of history and working toward equity.”

As the CSSJ emerged as one enduring outcome of Brown’s Slavery and Justice Report, Haas said, he learned the full extent of the now 10-year-old center’s research, scholarship and community engagement under the leadership of Bogues.

“The center’s work is central to so many conversations across art, history, economics, literature and culture,” Haas said. “Tony understands how to reach across disciplines to address some of the biggest social issues of our time, including systemic inequality and anti-Black racism. I was moved to support the work he’s leading.”

Ruth’s bold, enlightened action paved the way for the center, one of the jewels of education and research at Brown, and there is no more fitting tribute than to name the center in her honor.

Christina H. Paxson President, Brown University
Christina Paxson speaking at a podium

Haas’ support inspired more than a dozen other gifts that ultimately established the $10 million endowment. Among the supporters were Class of 1974 graduates and Brown parents Jerome and Mary Vascellaro, whose continual support over the last decade has helped fund slavery and justice research fellowships for graduate students, among other initiatives. Also supporting the endowment’s establishment were Joan Wernig Sorensen, a Class of 1972 graduate and a BrownTogether campaign co-chair, and E. Paul Sorensen, a Class of 1971 graduate and a member of the center’s advisory council. The pair are also Brown parents, and they received honorary degrees from the University in 2019.

Strong backing from alumni has fueled the center from the very beginning, Bogues said, and inspired gifts that directly supported the new endowment. In the CSSJ’s early years, Class of 1976 graduates and Brown parents Libby and Craig Heimark made gifts to launch the center’s work with an artist-in-residence, and they’ve continued to champion the center. Class of 1963 graduates Tom Bale and Ann Coles founded and co-chaired Friends of the Center, which has provided sustained financial support by raising awareness of CSSJ’s work among local and regional alumni groups. Bale and Coles’ advocacy has inspired gifts at all levels and across multiple generations of Brown graduates, including for the successful endowment fundraising in recent years.

Then and now, the center’s work has inspired Spencer Crew, a Class of 1971 graduate and Brown parent who contributed to the endowment, to lend his support. As a student at Brown, Crew advocated for increased representation of, and support for, Black students. Decades later, inspired by the University’s progress, Crew not only contributed to the CSSJ but also became chair of the center’s advisory council. The George Mason University history professor said he admires the center for its impactful partnerships both inside and outside of academia.

“The center hasn’t just reached the global academic community with its work,” Crew said. “It has forged connections in the Providence community through collaborative research projects and engagement with schools. It has engaged the public in conversations about history and race through plays and exhibitions, on and off campus. In the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement, the center organized compelling virtual conversations with scholars, artists and activists. The CSSJ’s commitment to engaging with the public is so important.”

A force for truth-telling

Chief among the CSSJ’s impactful partnerships, Bogues said, is its years-long collaboration with the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Bogues said the partnership is mutually beneficial: It allows both the center and the museum to generate new insights on the history of the slave trade and to share those insights with millions across the globe, something neither entity can do alone.

Ruth Simmons is an extraordinary educator... Naming the CSSJ in her honor is deeply appropriate, since the center remains committed to the work she began.

Anthony Bogues Director, Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice
Tony Bogues speaking at a podium

In 2014, the museum and center co-founded 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. The group, whose members span four continents, is now at work on an oral history project called “Unfinished Conversations,” a collection of recorded conversations, video narratives and audio interviews that shed light on how slavery and colonialism shaped certain communities and the world as a whole. Some of those stories will be included in a traveling exhibition tentatively titled “In Slavery’s Wake,” co-curated by the museum and opening in Washington in December 2024.

Holding the celebration at such a prominent partner institution in Washington, Simmons said, illustrated that one of the CSSJ’s greatest accomplishments thus far is its catalyzing force — its ability to kickstart bold new research and engage people across generations, races and borders in conversations about the history of slavery.

Underlying all of that work is a steadfast commitment to truth-telling, a tenet close to Simmons’ heart and a chief reason why she said she is proud the Ruth J. Simmons Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice now bears her name.

“I believe that if one forecloses the possibility of learning the extensive consequences of human rights violations, such treatment is likely to continue in other and possibly more virulent forms,” Simmons said. “In our efforts to improve upon the human condition, truth is our ally and inspiration.”