Date September 7, 2023
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Brown marks celebratory unveiling of the Ruth J. Simmons Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice

In celebration of the renamed center, an unveiling ceremony honored Brown’s president emerita, who sparked a landmark effort to uncover the University’s historical ties to slavery.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — On a bright and steamy afternoon on College Hill, members of the Brown University community came together to honor one of its most revered figures: President Emerita Ruth J. Simmons.

Led by Professor Anthony Bogues, who directs the Ruth J. Simmons Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown, the crowd of celebrants recognized Simmons’ legacy, which was foundational to the creation of the center that now bears her name.

The event was also an occasion to celebrate the 10-year-old center’s research, scholarship and community engagement, and its broad impact on campus and around the world. Simmons, who served as president of Brown from 2001 to 2012, was on hand for the celebratory unveiling of the newly renamed center, and she urged the work to continue.

“Brown is always cited — always cited — as the place that set the model for how to do this work well,” said Simmons, Brown’s 18th president. “One of the best things we do as human beings is continue the work of justice. I can’t think of anything that is more humanizing than applying ourselves to that in every generation.”

The event, held on Thursday, Sept. 7, outside the center at 94 Waterman St., marked a major milestone for the center, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary. It followed a March event at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., where news of the renaming was announced as part of the center’s anniversary celebration.

The renaming honors Simmons, whose bold initiative to uncover the University’s historical ties to racial slavery resulted in a landmark 2006 report. The authors described in detail how several of Brown’s founders and benefactors participated in and benefited from the slave trade, and it recommended a series of actions the University could take to confront its history. Among many other outcomes, it led to the creation of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice in 2012.

“Dr. Ruth Simmons’ urging and vision to establish a committee to examine Brown’s relationship to the Atlantic slave trade was a profound moment in American higher education,” Bogues said. “It was also a moment that changed the direction of the ways in which American universities would think about the system.”

The effort at Brown inspired universities and other organizations around the world to take up the work of investigating their own ties to slavery and confronting its enduring legacy.

“She was not just asking a historical question about the Atlantic slave trade,” Bogues said. “She was actually asking a question about today … What are the legacies of the slave trade today? How does it impact us living in America, and how does it impact and shape this University [today]?”

The crowd of about 50 guests included Brown officials, students, faculty, staff and interested passersby who were drawn to the event. Even Elvy — the Brown Department of Public Safety’s comfort dog — made an appearance and shared a moment with Simmons.

One of the best things we do as human beings is continue the work of justice. I can’t think of anything that is more humanizing than applying ourselves to that in every generation.

Ruth J. Simmons Brown President Emerita

The crowd first gathered under a tent set up near the center, learning about the center’s origins, the people who helped establish it and the center’s history as a leader for research that is changing the way the world learns about the legacies of the slave trade. The group then proceeded from the from the shade of the tent to the sun-soaked street, where a newly installed sign for the center was officially unveiled by Simmons and Bogues, who drew back the drape that was covering it.

Also at the unveiling event — which preceded a book talk with Simmons later in the evening for her new memoir, “Up Home: One Girl’s Journey” — Simmons received a special gift from the center: a boxed catalog of art exhibitions and historical research produced during the center’s first 10 years.

As she graciously accepted the gift, Simmons reminded attendees that the work is far from finished.

“I leave here today thinking that, although I would love to be retired, as long as there is justice work to be done, there is no such thing as retired,” Simmons said. “There’s always work to do and I thank all of you for being committed to that work.”