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A tangled web (continued)

It was against this jagged historical and legal landscape that Simmons quietly established the Committee on Slavery and Justice, on April 30, 2003, naming 16 students, teachers, and administrators as members.

Simmons outlined a wide-ranging process, harnessing the university’s powerful intellectual resources. She directed the panel not only to further probe the university’s history, but to study what has been done to rectify other historical injustices, such as the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and South African apartheid. She told the committee to bring experts to the Brown campus, organize scholarly conferences, and sponsor lectures, special courses, and research projects. Thus, Simmons is playing to the university’s unique intellectual strengths, which could lay the foundation for a definitive and credible study that would be hard for those on campus and beyond to ignore.

James T. Campbell, the Brown history professor who heads the committee, says Simmons has not spelled out any final goals, although he assumes that critics will accuse her of doing that. "There are going to be some who are going to try to spin this to suggest that somehow this is just an African-American woman bringing her own pro-reparations agenda and imposing it on a university," Campbell says. "I think that couldn’t be further from the truth. I truly have not a clue what Ruth Simmons’s thinking about the issue of reparations is." Campbell describes Simmons as "an exceptionally principled woman, a person who is exceptionally tough-minded," who recognized that since questions about slavery keep recurring, they should be dealt with forthrightly.

Brown waited almost a year to formally announce the study — an indication of just how touchy the issue is. Although the Brown Alumni Magazine made mention of it last July, and the Providence Journal brought the story to public attention in March, Brown declined comment. A week later, the New York Times quoted Simmons directly: "If the committee comes back and says, ‘Oh, it’s been lovely and we’ve learned a lot,’ but there’s nothing in particular that they think Brown can do or should do, I will be very disappointed."

Campbell and others on the committee insist that cash reparations are only one option for redress. "We are not going to duck the question of monetary reparations," he says. "But I think it’s very important that we don’t become obsessed with that one question, which is a hot-button issue in American politics, and instead begin to think, what are some of the other ways in which it might be possible for an institution to make amends for parts of its history of which, I think, it is rightly ashamed."

And just last month, in an April 28 Boston Globe op-ed, Simmons herself wrote that payment of reparations "was never the intent nor will the payment of reparations be the outcome" of the committee’s work.

But a student member of the committee, Seth Magaziner, acknowledges that the publicity may have spooked some alumni. "There has been some concern — because we are in the midst of a capital campaign here at the school — that there may be some alumni who are upset about what we are doing," Magaziner says. "But I think that once the word gets out about what exactly the committee is — that we are not just together to be a check-writing committee, that we are actually trying to have a much larger and more open discussion with multiple viewpoints — I don’t think it will hurt the university."

Not that this means the effort is a whitewash, says Magaziner, whose father, Ira, was a student activist when he was at Brown and is credited with helping to shape Brown’s current curriculum. Ira Magaziner later served as an aide to President Bill Clinton, directing, with now–US Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former administration’s failed health-insurance-reform effort. "Brown as an institution — it’s not an institution that pays taxes — it’s an institution, I think, that owes some sort of debt to the community," Seth Magaziner says. "And one of the ways to perhaps repay that debt is to ask serious questions about its past and about how it can ... best right some of the wrongs that have been committed in the past."

But if not cash, what other remedies are there?

"Let me give you one example," Campbell says. "If, in the course of our investigation, we find that — as I think is clear — Africans were brought to this state by people, including some of the benefactors of this university, as slaves, perhaps one of the things we might want to think about is whether we should be bringing Africans to this place as students."

Campbell also suggests that given the lack of general knowledge about slavery among Rhode Islanders, the state’s school curriculum needs upgrading. "One of the first and vital steps is simply making that kind of information about our history available, both to our own students here on the campus, and, I hope, more broadly [to] public schools in the state as a whole."


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Issue Date: June 4 - 10, 2004
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