In 2003, Brown University appointed a commission to investigate the links between the university and slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was one of the first institutions to do this, and naturally, it stirred up a lot of controversy. One aim of the investigation was to increase awareness of slavery, and to organise public programmes for students and non-academics alike to recognise the impact of the ‘peculiar institution’. James Campbell, one of the committee members, believed that it was an “obligation” of the university to understand and acknowledge the history of slavery, particularly in Rhode Island where the slave trade was thought to have had little impact.
Their findings were interesting. Brown University had many links with the slave trade – African American slaves were hired to work on the buildings, many of which were built with the profits of merchants investing in the trade. Abolitionists were also connected to the university, as some members of the Brown family were supportive of the American Anti-Slavery Society, which caused massive tension with others who were not keen on this new organisation.
Critics of the report kicked up a storm about the issue of reparations, something that Brown rigorously denied as ever having been an intention of the committee. Some corners of the media also accused the university of starting a race war, which is indicative of how a lot of Americans are reluctant to confront their past.
This report is nothing new of course, but I think it’s an excellent example of public history, and one that should be repeated here in Britain. While cities like Bristol and Liverpool have acknowledged their role in the slave trade, more should be done to acknowledge this history. James Campbell hit the nail on the head when he argued that the report, and hopefully others like it, was not only an acknowledgement of the past, but a new journey for public history – controversial issues should be openly discussed, and society should learn about the positive and negative periods in their history.