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Slavery and the University: Reclaiming a Difficult History in Providence

Photo by Warren Jagger

Photo by Warren Jagger

Shana Weinberg is the Assistant Director at the Center for the Study of Slavery & Justice (CSSJ) at Brown University. The Center welcomes visitors coming to Providence for the OAH Annual Meeting in Providence, as well as other visitors, to explore its renovated 19th century house at 94 Waterman Street on the Brown University Campus. The Center includes a gallery, a Rising to Freedom glass wall art piece, and an educational garden. The Center is open weekdays for visitors from 9-4:45. If you’d like to visit outside of business hours, please email: to arrange.

As I sit in my office at the Center for the Study of Slavery & Justice at Brown University, the history and legacy of the Atlantic slave trade surrounds me. It is etched in the names of local institutions, the built environment, and embedded within the memory of communities that have been displaced through gentrification.

Situated in the College Hill neighborhood on Providence’s East Side, Brown University is sandwiched between the Moses Brown School and the Rhode Island Historical Society’s John Brown House Museum, living monuments bearing the names of two brothers whose views on slavery came to vary greatly after their company sponsored a failed slaving venture. Conversations around the history of slavery had been pushed to the margins for many decades. However the community has and is reclaiming this experience confronting the history of slavery in the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations thanks to the efforts of numerous local initiatives.

We know a great deal about the Browns’ connection to the slave trade, due to the work of the 2003 Slavery & Justice Committee, formed by then President Ruth J. Simmons.  During all the years of the North American slavery, more than half the vessels launched came from Rhode Island.  Examining one particular ship, the Sally, provided important insight into how the institution of slavery operated within the colonial community of Providence.  Launched by the Brown brothers (Nicholas, John, Joseph, and Moses) the brig the Sally was the first slave ship to depart directly from Providence.  It left for West Africa in 1764, the same year that the College of Rhode Island was founded (it would not be until 1804 that the College would change its name to honor a gift from later descendants of the Brown family).  The voyage was, even in a contemporary context, particularly disastrous. The enslaved captives started to die even before the journey to the Caribbean slave markets began; a week later there would be a slave revolt.

Fastidious record keepers, the Brown brothers amassed a large archive of receipts, ledgers, and letters, which can be found today at The John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.  These documents show the enormous amount of effort that went into outfitting a slave ship for a voyage to Africa. This network of economic participation enmeshed many people across the state including farmers, bakers, blacksmiths, carpenters, distillery workers, and coopers among many others as they prepared and equipped ships for the Middle Passage.

After the failed voyage of the Sally, John Brown would continue to sponsor other slaving voyages, even after Rhode Island outlawed the transatlantic slave trade. While his brother Moses would become a public activist against the trade, he invested in the creation of local textile mills, which relied on slave picked cotton.  These mills helped to spur the Industrial Revolution in Rhode Island, and many would manufacture “Negro Cloth” a rough material sold to plantation owners to clothe their slaves.

The University’s connection to the slave trade is not exclusive to the Sally.  Records show many of the founders and early trustees of Brown acquired their wealth through links to the trade in human lives.   The first of Brown’s buildings, University Hall (1770), which now houses the upper administrative offices, was built with enslaved labor donated by patrons of the University.  Newport’s Lopez and Rivera, a large slave trading company, donated wood for the building as an in-kind contribution. Early University records reveal that many contributors to the endowment had also earned their money through the slave trade.  Today, almost two and half centuries after its construction, a monument to the history of slavery sits in the shadow of University Hall its top, a broken chain, reminding us that this history and reconciliation are not complete.

In the decade since the Slavery & Justice report was published, a flurry of initiatives and projects have reclaimed lost voices, uncovered how prominent families obtained their wealth, commemorated displaced communities of color, and developed programs about slavery and its legacies.   The National Park Service recently awarded a grant to the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission (RIHPHC) and the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society (RIBHS) to “assist in efforts to broaden the inclusion of underrepresented communities in statewide inventories of historic properties and the National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks.”  In addition to broadening the inclusion of communities left out of earlier inventories, many African American and Diasporic communities were dispersed particularly in the 1950s and 1960s due to the University’s expanding footprint and other urban renewal projects. Hopefully these new initiatives will help tell silenced stories of dispersed communities.

Additionally, the newly formed Center for Reconciliation seeks to tell the role of the Episcopal Church in the slave trade through public programs and exhibitions. Housed in the historic Cathedral of St. John, its origins can be directly linked to the DeWolf family whose wealth was based largely in the slave trade.  The Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project, a national organization that commemorates Middle Passage arrival sites through educational plaques and community gatherings, recently formed a Rhode Island Chapter with the support of civic and nonprofit leaders, scholars, educators, and community members. Researchers and community members connected to this initiative are helping to uncover more information about Rhode Island’s past and galvanizing community action to unite for a better understanding of our collective history in Providence and Rhode Island. The Center for the Study of Slavery & Justice, formed out of a recommendation of the Slavery & Justice report, supports many of these community efforts, as well as scholarship around the history and legacy of slavery and public programs and exhibitions for the community.

At the time of the formation of the Slavery & Justice Committee, then President Simmons told the New York Times:

How does one repair a kind of social breach in human rights so that people are not just coming back to it periodically and demanding apologies…. so that society learns from it, acknowledges what has taken place and then moves on. What I’m trying to do, you see, in a country that wants to move on, I’m trying to understand as a descendant of slaves how to feel good about moving on.

The work of the Slavery & Justice report helped to encourage conversations about a painful past, and opened the door for many of the initiatives happening locally today.  As institutions across the nation are being forced to confront their history and think critically about diversity and inclusion today, we can look to the Slavery & Justice report as an important tool for learning more about our past so we can better understand our present, and work for a more humane future.