Ruth J. Simmons Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice

Slavery reparations, racial justice, black history: Universities lead

Instead, universities have taken the lead on what they call reparative justice. Georgetown University apologized to descendants of slaves who were sold to pay school debts and recently pledged to raise $400,000 a year for programs to help those descendants. In October, Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey announced a nearly $28 million plan, including scholarships to descendants of enslaved Africans.

Maiyah Gamble-Rivers
Maiyah Gamble-Rivers created the Slavery & Legacy tour for the Center for the Study of Slavery & Justice at Brown University that includes a stop at the Slavery Memorial. 
Credit: Deborah Barfield Barry, USA Today

But the model for these programs is Brown University, which issued a groundbreaking report in 2006 about its founders’ connection to slavery and created a center to research slavery and injustice. 

“We have an obligation to tell the truth about our history because we’re a university,” said Ruth Simmons, the former president of Brown. 

Other universities, she said, can do the same. “We’re best at doing the research and speaking the truth of what transpired … I think the truth is always worth it.’’

Slavery and Brown University

Maiyah Gamble-Rivers trudged through the snow one recent afternoon to get to a highlight on the Slavery & Legacy walking tour at Brown University. 

The memorial – a half sphere and a broken chain rising to the sky – is only steps from the oldest building on campus. Free and enslaved blacks helped build University Hall.

Inside is an exhibit entitled “Hidden in Plain Sight: American Slavery and the University,’’ which tells the story of the school founders’ role in trafficking Africans.

The tour also includes a stop by a quad named after Simmons, the university’s first black president. There's another stop in front of Page-Robinson hall, named for Inman Edward Page and Ethel Tremaine Robinson, the first black man and woman to graduate from Brown.

Gamble-Rivers created the tour. A native of Providence, she hadn’t imagined working at the university. She never even visited as a high school student. But now the 30-year-old program manager at the Center for the Study of Slavery & Justice said she’s proud to share the history of blacks on campus and in Rhode Island – even the horrors.

“It is not a choice,’’ she said. “It is a responsibility and it is a duty.” 

Brown was one of the first universities to exhaustively examine its connection to slavery. The tour, the center, the memorial and even Gamble-Rivers’ job came about because of the 2006 report about the history of slavery there.

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