Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Slavery and Justice: What Brown University has taught me about Public History

John and I have often written posts for this blog describing what we feel to be good standards and examples of public history. I first questioned what public history meant in one of my first posts, and more recently, John added his thoughts about Sam Richard’s TED talk on empathy and how it relates to the field of public history.

In the post today, I want to add to that debate by discussing Brown University’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. John recently turned me on to this, and while I still haven’t read the whole report (available in pdf), I’m really impressed by what I’ve read so far. For those of you who are not familiar with the report, I highly recommend it - it is very insightful. The Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice report documents Brown University’s public struggle with its historic foundations which, are tied inextricably to the economics of slavery and the slave trade. The committee’s report seeks to reconcile with Brown’s historic past and find where the present lives in the past.

The report seeks to answer the question:
How are we, as members of the Brown community, as Rhode Islanders, and as citizens and residents of the United States, to make sense of our complex history? How do we reconcile those elements of our past that are gracious and honorable with those that provoke grief and horror? What responsibilities, if any, rest upon us in the present as inheritors of this mixed legacy? The Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice represents one institution’s confrontation with these questions.

The Steering Committee is doing public history. It asks people to consider, “What does our history mean to us today?” and, “What should we do about the parts of the past that aren’t so honorable?” The goals of the committee were not only to present the, “University’s historic entanglement with slavery and the slaver trade and to report the findings openly and truthfully,” but also to, “reflect on the meaning of this history in the present, on the complex historical, political, legal, and moral questions posed by any present day confrontation with past injustice.” The committee’s goals were to acknowledge the past, and recognizing that it can’t be changed, ask and foster the debate today on what could be done going forward. The committee is actively engaging the community and the country with the past, and what it means to us today. It’s practicing public/civic engagement. As the president of the University stated, it was, “an effort designed to involve the campus community in a discovery of the meaning of our past…Understanding our history and suggesting how the full truth of that history can be incorporated into our common traditions will not be easy. But, then it doesn’t have to be.”

Why would an institution do this, you might ask? What does it accomplish? Why open chapters of the past that are controversial and painful? Brown University faced the same questions while undergoing this project. Their answer was simple – “Brown is a University.” Even today, the institution recognized that it was part of that past, it was a descendent of that past, and that it was forever connected to that past. Historically and morally, Brown is forever connected to its history and slavery.

Reading the first half of the report, I’ve loved every minute of it. It’s great public history. Along with fostering empathy, this is where public history needs to be headed. Brown University becomes human through the report. The institution, struggles with difficult problems, and they are the first to admit, that they don’t necessarily have all the answers – none of us do. Hopefully, by engaging the community and greater public, they can foster a discussion, that while it may never furnish the perfect answer, it might at least encourage debate and maybe a consensus.

Brown University image courtesy of Brown University Library via Wikipedia. "Am I not a man..." courtesy of LoC.


  1. While we may applaud Brown for its approach to the past, we must also be mindful of our own connections to slavery in the present. Many of the products that we consume, from out iPods to our shirts, are produced through slave labor, or the near equivalent. Much like many Northerners before the Civil War, we consume goods without being aware of how they were produced (or how their precursors were produced). I am all for applauding Brown for confronting its past, but we should also be mindful that we need to confront our present (for instance, the fact that I can afford the computer that I use to make this comment rests upon that fact that there are thousands of Chinese workers in near slavery making the components, as well as thousands of South Asians in India and Bangladesh breaking down discarded electronics at great personal hazard, which in turn renders the price of the recycled metals for the Chinese to assemble affordable).

  2. doubleshotcanister,

    Thanks for stopping by. Your comment definitely raises some interesting ideas to think about - I'll be addressing them in a future post this Tuesday.

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