Building the Report
In April 2003, then Brown President Ruth J. Simmons invited a group of faculty, undergraduate students, graduate students and administrators to serve as members of a Steering Committee that would help the campus and nation better understand the University’s historical connection to racial slavery.
Brown’s history makes this an issue about which we have a special obligation and a special opportunity to provide thoughtful inquiry.
Simmons’ request was twofold. First, she charged the committee with the task of shedding light on the history of Brown’s ties to the transatlantic slave trade and an overview of reparations programs throughout history. Second, she called on the group to organize a series of academic events and activities that might help the University, and the United States at large, think deeply, seriously and rigorously about reckoning with its history of racial slavery.
Serving on the committee were academic and diversity administrators; faculty in American studies, English, Africana studies, history, political science and international affairs; and students from across campus, who today work in the social justice, education and health equity sectors.
Over the course of three years, members of the Steering Committee, along with other Brown faculty and student researchers, gathered information on Brown’s past, drawing on published sources and historical archives. They scoured historical ledgers, letters, news coverage, books and peer-reviewed articles, working with campus librarians, state and regional historical societies and federal museums to unearth the full story of the University’s ties to racial slavery.
To enrich their understanding of racial slavery’s legacy, and to drive critical conversation on how to reckon with history, the committee also sponsored more than 30 public programs, including scholarly lectures, panel discussions, forums and film screenings. They hosted more than 100 distinguished speakers, ranging from internationally recognized scholars to federal elected officials to survivors of modern forms of slavery.
Many of the committee’s programs and activities extended beyond the University’s campus. To explore the ways in which other societies had grappled with legacies of historical injustice, the committee members held two international conferences. They addressed community groups in the Providence, Rhode Island, area and participated in workshops for local teachers and students. They worked with undergraduate students to create a traveling exhibition about the Sally, a slave ship whose voyage had been funded by members of the Brown family. And, working with the Choices Program at Brown, they created a high school curriculum on the slave trade and racial slavery in New England, donating copies to high school classrooms across Rhode Island.
Three years of rigorous and extensive research and rich programming culminated in a report of unprecedented scope and attention to detail. The evocative report, released in 2006, begins with a survey of the University’s relationship to racial slavery and the complicity of its founders and benefactors in the slave trade. It also surveys how others across the globe had confronted traumatic histories and crimes against humanity, and critically, it includes an examination of the centuries-long slavery reparations debate in the United States.
The report concludes with a series of recommendations directed to University leaders — recommendations that would guide Brown’s next steps in grappling with the past and deepening its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.
The full original report, including the recommendations, is included in the expanded second edition.