Brown & Slavery & Justice

Committee chair’s letter to the Brown community, March 2004

Committee Communications

March 13, 2004

Dear Members of the Brown Community,

As you may have heard, President Simmons recently appointed a University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. The committee, which is composed of faculty members from a diverse range of disciplines, as well as representatives of the administration and undergraduate and graduate student bodies, has been given a wide-ranging charge "to organize academic events and activities that might help the nation and the Brown community think deeply, seriously, and rigorously about the questions raised" by the emerging national debate over slavery and reparations. I am writing to you now in my capacity as chair of that committee, to inform you of our work and to solicit your active participation in what we hope will be a searching and academically rigorous exploration of this controversial issue.

Demands for reparations for slavery go all the way back to the era of emancipation, but the issue has acquired new salience in recent years, due in part to the filing of several class action lawsuits. While Brown is not at this writing a named party in any legal action, this issue still has special significance to us. At the time of Brown’s founding, Rhode Island was the epicenter of the North American slave trade, a trade in which some of the university’s early benefactors were directly involved. As President Simmons noted in her letter charging the committee, this history gives us "a special obligation and a special opportunity" to engage the reparations issue in all its complex historical, political, legal and moral dimensions.

Over the next two years our committee will help to underwrite a series of academic events intended to illuminate not only the immediate question of Brown’s relationship to slavery and the slave trade but also a variety of comparative and historical contexts that may enrich our understanding of the possibilities and potential pitfalls of campaigns for retrospective justice. Thus, in addition to programs related specifically to the debate over slavery reparations in the United States, we hope to sponsor lectures and symposia on such topics as: the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission; the history of reparations movements associated with the Holocaust and Japanese-American internment during World War II; Native American land claims, and so forth. All of our events will be open to the entire Brown community and to the wider public. At the conclusion of its term, the committee will submit a report to President Simmons and to the University community as a whole.

For this process to succeed, it is essential that all members of the Brown community feel free to participate. Our object is not simply to ensure that many voices are heard, but to avail ourselves of the extraordinary range of talents and expertise that lies within the University. We have devised a variety of means to facilitate such participation, including research support for undergraduate and graduate students working on topics broadly related to the committee’s charge, as well as incentives for faculty members to encourage original research and the creation of new courses. Details on these programs, along with a copy of the committee’s charge and a calendar of events, can be found at our new website. The website will be updated regularly, and we encourage you to consult it periodically to inform yourself about the committee’s continuing work.

In her letter charging the committee, President Simmons suggested that we would likely find ourselves confronting questions "about which informed men and women of good will may ultimately disagree." Indeed. But if we can offer no pledge of a tidy resolution, we can promise a genuinely open-ended inquiry, intended to enable all of us, individually and collectively, to engage with complex historical and contemporary questions in a reasoned, rigorous way.

Should you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please do not hesitate to get in touch. We ask that submissions be directed to the committee as a whole, at or Box 1895, Brown University, Providence, RI 02912.

Sincerely, James T. Campbell