About Brown University's Conversation on Slavery

Roundup: Talking About History

Kathleen Durand, in the Herald News (Fall River, MA) (Aug. 21, 2004):

Children growing up in this part of the country aren’t usually taught about it, but James T. Campbell of Brown University said New England, Rhode Island in particular and old institutions like Brown University are deeply implicated in the history of slavery.

Campbell, an associate professor of American civilization, African studies and history at Brown, was the guest speaker Thursday at a meeting of the Fall River Rotary Club at White’s of Westport. He heads Brown’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, which was appointed by President Ruth Simmons in 2003.

Campbell said coincidentally the room where the steering committee meets has an old grandfather’s clock with a plaque identifying it as the family clock of Esek Hopkins. Hopkins was a Revolutionary War hero and master of the brig Sally, a slave ship that sailed to the West Indies on behalf of the merchant brothers John, Nicholas, Moses and Joseph Brown, he said. Brown University was named for the Brown family.

As people look into the past, "You uncover aspects of history of which you are proud and of which you are very ashamed. Every institution has parts that are beautiful and graceful and parts that are shameful," he said.

Campbell said some people choose to forget or repress evidence of the central role slavery played in Rhode Island and elsewhere in New England. Sixty percent of the slave ships that sailed from North America sailed out of Newport as part of the Triangle Trade, he said.

"There was slavery in all 13 colonies. In some ways, it was fundamental to the economy," said Campbell.

He said slave labor was responsible for much of what Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts produced, such as lumber, hay and rum, and when the American Industrial Revolution first took place, textiles known as "Negro cloth" were produced by slaves.

Simmons has directed the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice to organize academic events and activities that might help the nation and the Brown community think deeply, seriously and rigorously about questions raised by the national debate over slavery and reparations.

Campbell said Brown has not been named as a party in any suit seeking reparations, but any old institution can be implicated....

Campbell said the steering committee hopes to facilitate a conversation among students and the community on how to confront that part of their history. A variety of other institutions are dealing with the slavery issue, so Brown is not unique, he said. As one example, Campbell cited the University of Alabama, which is dealing with the fact that it owned slaves and had slaves buried in unmarked graves on its campus.

He said Brown is committed to learning about its history and will be bringing in experts on reparations, in the sense of repairs for people who have been damaged, and war crimes.

"Not everyone approves of the conversation. They think we are being divisive. They think we should let bygones be bygones. But who gets to say the past is past?" Campbell said.

Campbell said some of the information he learned during the committee’s research "blew me away.’’ He said he was astounded to discover that 10 million of the 12 million people who migrated from the Old World to the New World by 1830 were African slaves.

Although he said he doesn’t think monetary reparations to descendants of slaves are a good idea and are politically viable, there should be some middle ground.

"As an educational institution, we can assure that people learn about history," he said.

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