Slavery Reparations Stir Contentious Debate. Why Brown And Other Universities Are Trying To Make Things Right

Isheka N. Harrison
Written by Isheka N. Harrison
While partisan politicians verbally squabble over reparations for slavery, institutions of higher learning have been taking action to provide recompense for their role in one of the world’s most atrocious historical acts. In this photo titled: Chaine d’esclaves venant de l’interieure (chain/coffle of slaves coming from the interior); shows six African men with two armed guards. Photo Courtesy of Renè Claude Geoffroy de Villeneuve, L’Afrique, ou histoire, moeurs, usages et coutumes des africains: le Sènègal (Paris, 1814), vol. 4, facing p. 43. (Copy in Special Collections, University of Virginia Library)

The debate about whether or not governments across the globe should pay reparations to descendants of African slaves is nothing new. But 400 years after the first captured Africans set foot on British colonies, it has been re-energized. Proponents of the policy believe those who oppose it should take a page from college and universities’ books on the matter.

In the U.S. they are debating H.R. 40, which was named for the unfulfilled promise to provide Black people with 40 acres and a mule after slavery was abolished. In Antigua and other Caribbean islands, they are pushing for slaveowners from Britain and other countries who got rich off the backs of African slaves to literally pay for their sins. In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has been fighting for decades to right the wrongs of apartheid. In short, reparations is a global phenomenon.

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In most cases, no tangible payments have resulted. However, while partisan politicians verbally squabble over the idea, institutions of higher learning have been taking action to provide recompense for their role in one of the world’s most atrocious historical acts.

Brown University is one of the institutions which hopes it can avoid being on the wrong side of history this time. According to USA Today, Brown published a “groundbreaking report in 2006 about its founders’ connection to slavery and created a center to research slavery and injustice.”

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It also has a memorial to slaves and is home to the Slavery & Legacy walking tour. Ruth Simmons, the former president of Brown who was the first Black person to fulfill the position, said it was necessary to be honest about their role in slavery.

“We have an obligation to tell the truth about our history because we’re a university,” Simmons said. “We’re best at doing the research and speaking the truth of what transpired … I think the truth is always worth it.’’

Other universities have followed their lead including: Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, which unveiled a $28 million plan to “repent for its ties to slavery;” the Virginia Theological Seminary, which started a $1.7 million reparations fund; the University of Glasgow, which acknowledged how it benefitted from slavery and pledged to raise $24 million over two decades and a partnership with the University of the West Indies; and Georgetown University, which apologized to descendants of slaves they sold to cover debts, voted to create a reparations fund and pledged to raise $400,00 a year for it.

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While Republicans like Mitch McConnell and others deny the necessity for tangible reparations – or suggest that electing Black presidents is a form of them – universities across the globe are leading the charge to not just talk about reparations, but to actually provide them.

Reparations and honestly discussing the history of slavery are “not a choice,” but “a responsibility and it is a duty,” said Maiyah Gamble-Rivers, a program manager at Brown’s Center for the Study of Slavery & Justice.