Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Brown University and Slavery

Joshua Zeitz reviews Charles Rappleye's new book, Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution:
The story of the Brown brothers has assumed new importance in recent years, as Brown University—the Ivy League institution they helped build, and which bears their name—has impaneled a committee of administrators and faculty members to investigate the relationship between the university’s early financing and the Brown family’s profit from the slave trade. Although the Sally’s mission proved a dismal failure, it seems likely that John Brown experienced at least some financial payoff from his other ventures in the trade, and since he and Moses both gave freely of their personal fortunes to help jumpstart what was then called Rhode Island College, many at the university are eager to arrive at a full moral accounting of the institution’s origins.

Rappleye does more than just tell an important story. He does a fine job of demonstrating how the rhetoric of the Revolution, with its references to colonial “enslavement” at the hands of the diabolical British parliament, compelled many men like Moses Brown to rethink the morality of actual slavery. Also he reminds readers that slavery was at the time a national, not sectional, problem. Indeed at one point in its colonial history, Rhode Island’s sea merchants were importing more than two thirds of all the African slaves who arrived in North America.

Rappleye’s book has lasting importance today, as does the Brown family legacy. Look around Providence and you can still see the streets—Bowen, Angell, Hope—that bear the names of the book’s characters. Or visit the stately red-brick administrative building, University Hall, that Nicholas, Moses, and John Brown financed in 1770. There presides Ruth Simmons, the first African-American president of an Ivy League university. She sits at the helm of a college that may have been built partly on the sweat and tears of her ancestors but whose transformation over the years testifies to the long sweep of Rhode Island’s, and America’s, history.

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