The most obvious reason to avoid making specific payments to individuals is that spelling out the specific harm Brown’s slavery links had on individuals, and then finding people who inherited that harm in tangible ways, is enormously difficult. Another reason is that Brown isn’t rich, at least in Ivy League terms. Its $1.5 billion endowment is the smallest among the eight Ivy institutions. By comparison, Harvard’s endowment is $18.9 billion. (Harvard Law School benefited from slave-linked money, according to the Brown Alumni Magazine, which says that the school’s first endowed professorship, the Isaac Royall Chair, "was funded from money earned at Royall’s slave plantation in Antigua.")
THIRTY MILES from the Brown campus in the former slave-trade port of Newport, Keith W. Stokes takes a dim view of a reparations-through-guilt approach. Stokes, an African-American, is a historian and executive director of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce. He has researched his own background, as well as the history of slavery in Rhode Island; he lectures frequently and even maintains a family Web site, www.eyesofglory.com. "Whatever discussion, whatever discovery, whatever comes out of this process," Stokes says of Brown’s study and similar inquiries, "it cannot include guilt. It should not transfer guilt to any one group of people."
The reason, Stokes says, is that many groups were involved in slavery, and to single out any one family, any one business or institution, would miss the point of how widespread slavery was in early America, and how deeply embedded it was in the Rhode Island economy. "The African slave trade, over that nearly 400-year period, was probably the world’s first and truest equal-opportunity employer," he says. "Nearly all manner of men, regardless of race, ethnicity, religious orientation, participated actively in the trade at some point."
Stokes hardly minimizes the effects of slavery. "It is clear that slavery and then racism have clearly crippled African-Americans in this country," he says. "So the issue becomes, how do you understand the factual history of how that occurred, and then how do you move forward in continuing and developing true equal access to housing, education, employment, to all people, and particularly, African-American people?"
What is needed, Stokes says, is a much clearer understanding of slavery’s wide reach. One step would be for Rhode Island schools to do a better job of showing both the extent of slavery and the stories of Rhode Island blacks, who became more than just slaves. "When I was in grade school, I hated when we did American history, and if I was only one of two blacks in the classroom and we talked about [the] slave trade, everyone would look at me. I’m sure every black kid in America has that story," he says.
Stokes believes that people should understand how blacks in America crafted a proud tradition of survival, becoming bricklayers and tradesmen, founding their own institutions, building communities and culture, and establishing themselves as musicians and politicians. "I don’t even lecture any more about who the slave masters were," he says. "I could care less about John Brown. We are now talking about the Africans themselves. They were real flesh-and-blood human beings."
Another expert on the state’s slave trade, Rhode Island College history professor J. Stanley Lemons, was asked to brief the Brown University committee on his perspective. "I think part of what we are trying to do is overcome a kind of amnesia that New England has about slavery," Lemons says. He says Rhode Islanders have "forgotten that Rhode Island had the highest slave-population proportion of any of the Northern states, and that Rhode Islanders themselves were the principal American slave traders."
Slavery so dominated the American economy, Lemons says, that even businesses not directly involved in chattel trafficking depended on it. For example, while the South was using slaves to grow cotton and tobacco for export, Northern farmers supplied food and other essential goods to the South and West Indies. "So here’s all these anti-slavery free farmers up in the North, making money off the fact that the South is a backward economy," Lemons says. "The vast majority of Americans who were engaged in oceanic commerce in the 18th century were loading up pigs and chickens and salt pork and cod and barrel staves — and bringing hoop iron and stuff like that to haul down to the West Indies to sell for molasses — which they bring back to Rhode Island, convert into rum, and go back and do the same thing again."
At the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, in Providence, Joaquina Bela Teixeira, the group’s executive director, says a commitment to "social reforms" — tied to an understanding of just how deeply slavery was embedded in Rhode Island — would be one appropriate outcome of the Brown University study. "I don’t have all the answers about what could be done," Teixeira concedes. But she says it’s important to understand how slavery led to racial discrimination, lynching, and the exploitation of blacks, and that abusive practices against many groups still continue. "What is it that we are doing because of the connection to slavery and that mentality of exploitation?" Teixeira asks. "How is it that we are doing very similar things today, when our corporations are outsourcing jobs and opportunities to places where people are not getting a similar wage and don’t have a chance for gaining access to the democratic dream? We’ve outsourced jobs to places like China, where they are living under horrible political realities."
Teixeira, who, along with Lemons, was invited to speak at a March panel discussion sponsored by the Brown committee, says Simmons’s approach is important because it puts the full weight of the university behind the study. "Dr. Ruth Simmons is an incredible, courageous woman, because there are a lot of people upset that this discussion is even happening," Teixeira says.
The NAACP’s Montiero, a former state deputy sheriff, hopes the Brown study will have an impact on the state, as well as on the Brown campus itself. Like many of those interviewed, Montiero seems leery of cash reparations, although he thinks it’s fair to expose the histories of established companies and institutions who continue to build on wealth produced at the expense of slaves. "When I see that companies [are] more than 150 years old, I seriously wonder how many of those companies were involved in slavery and to what degree," he says. "Did they have to paint slave ships? You know, did they put tar on slave ships? Who supplied the ropes to the slave ships? Where was it made? Were there screws in the slave ships, and who made those?"
One extremely valuable project, Montiero says, would be to help modern African-Americans trace their family histories and genealogies, so they could fill in chapters torn by the dislocation of slavery. "I don’t want to talk money as much as restoring my dignity, and my inclusion in America, and my ability to say, yes, we fought [in] every war in this country, yes, we participated in this country," he says.
Still, Teixeira, of the Black Heritage Society, says that one value of calls for reparations is that they dramatically focus attention on the depth and complexity of slave history. "To a certain degree, if there’s not some kind of responsibility that might be connected to money or property — or something like that — this whole idea won’t even be taken seriously," she says. "That’s why the reparations lawsuit was so important, because it put the discussion of these issues back on the table."
BACK AT BROWN University, Kani Romain, a senior from Martha’s Vineyard who is among the African-Americans on the Slavery and Justice Committee, says it’s too early to tell what kind of remedies the committee might consider.
Romain, who will graduate before the panel’s work is done, would like to see the university develop more courses on slavery and its consequences. She also believes that despite the controversial nature of the committee’s work, it will benefit the university and the state in the long run. "I think that every institution should really look back to its past, and really the whole, complete picture — whether you are dealing with the issue of slavery or other issues," Romain says.
One thing that seems clear is that race — especially when money is included in the mix — is such an uncomfortable and unpleasant subject that it is hard to get people to talk about it.
Two graduates of Brown, who might reasonably be expected to take an interest in how this study might affect both their alma mater and other Rhode Island institutions, were asked for their views. However, neither Governor Donald L. Carcieri, Class of 1965, nor Providence mayor David N. Cicilline, Class of 1983, responded to telephone and e-mail requests for comment.
It will be interesting to see if the on-campus dialogue initiated by the Brown study will spread. As described by committee chairman Campbell, the group has a broader opportunity, and in some ways, a larger obligation, that flows from the university’s history. The responsibility, he says, is "to try, first of all, [to] expose our students ... and I hope to expose the nation — to reasoned, thoughtful, sustained discussion and dialogue about issues of race and responsibility that Americans today just generally don’t think about, or speak about very well."
Brian C. Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Issue Date: June 4 - 10, 2004
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