Brown University was not founded on slavery, slave trade
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Brown University was not founded on slavery, slave trade

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Sylvia Brown, Opinion contributor
Published 7:00 a.m. ET July 5, 2020

It’s true that my famous ancestor John Brown defended the slave trade. But many others fought for equality and abolition.

Much has been written in recent weeks about Rhode Island’s dominant role in the transatlantic slave trade. Most articles mention “slave traders that included the prominent Brown and DeWolf families” or “the fortunes made by the Brown family in the slave trade.”

As the eldest of the 11th generation of Browns in Rhode Island, I want to seize this important moment to clarify why blanket statements about families are both incorrect and often harmful to a cause.

Two-hundred-twenty years ago, my brash, flamboyant great-great-great-great-great uncle, John Brown, stood up in Congress to defend the right of American merchants to engage in the slave trade. Some 150 years later, my grandfather, as assistant secretary of the Navy, was instrumental in desegregating the U.S. Navy during the Truman administration. His grandfather actively supported abolition initiatives before the Civil War and reconstruction efforts thereafter. That ancestor’s father was vice president of the Providence Abolition Society. And that man’s father (John Brown’s eldest brother), having deeply regretted his participation in a horrific 1764 slaving venture, made sure his sons were apprenticed to and mentored by one of Rhode Island’s foremost abolitionists, George Benson.

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But the shadow of this long-dead uncle hangs heavy over my branch of the Brown family and misperceptions continue, notably that John Brown supposedly founded Brown University with money made in the slave trade.

Controversy obscures the truth

Here are the facts: The College of Rhode Island was founded in 1764 by the Baptist Association of Philadelphia with funds raised all down the Eastern seaboard. John Brown and two brothers were indeed involved as signatories of the charter (along with 57 others), and in providing land and a building for the college’s relocation to Providence in 1770. The John Brown story ends with his death in 1803.

Forty years after its founding, the college was renamed Brown University to honor Nicholas Brown Jr., an ardent opponent of the slave trade. Yes, he was a successful merchant in an economy fueled by slavery. But he forbade his captains to engage even remotely with trafficking and ensured his family’s Providence Bank did not lend to slave traders. He was also a fierce enemy in both business and politics of the DeWolf family.

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It’s Nicholas Brown’s descendants who have been benefactors of the university, the city of Providence and the state of Rhode Island, generation after generation. And it is of their track record that I am justifiably proud.

I remember well my naval officer father’s sense of honor at being second-in-command to America’s first African American admiral when Samuel Gravely Jr. was promoted in 1971. I also remember my shock in 2004 when a speaker at Brown University’s first public forum on slavery and justice announced, “There were no good Browns.” That comment led to a decade of research and my book, “Grappling With Legacy.”

Controversial characters like John Brown may make for better stories than my rather reserved, discreet, direct ancestors. But, in times like these, when sensitivities run high, getting the facts straight is more important than ever.

Sylvia Brown, author of “Grappling With Legacy — Rhode Island’s Brown Family and the American Philanthropic Impulse” (Archway 2017), is a philanthropy adviser and donor educator. This column originally appeared in the Providence Journal.

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