Copyright 2007 Providence Publications, LLC
The Providence Journal (Rhode Island)
By LORRAINE HOPKINS
LAST SPRING, Yale finally banished a painting of its 17th Century namesake, Elihu Yale, because it depicted him with a dark-skinned servant who wears a shiny metal collar and kneels before him. The overtones had made the portrait toxic in the 1990s, but for 10 years, Yale resisted sporadic demands to remove it from its corporation room, where trustees meet.
Yale was also getting peppered for having dormitory names - Yale calls them "residential colleges"- honoring slave-owning alumni, John Calhoun, the South's famed orator, for one. The agitation stemmed largely from an unofficial history of Yale slavery ties, written by a trio of Yale graduate students in 2001. It had made Yale - rather than the more likely Brown - the North's restive campus in the long drive for reparations for African-Americans.
Yale's president, Richard Levin, felt the North's slavery involvements were "simply a fact of history" in an American past full of embarrassments, and supporters of keeping the names of the residential colleges included key black alumni: Henry Louis Gates Jr., the writer and Harvard's Africana head, who had lived at Calhoun, and former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, then head of the Yale Corporation and now law-school dean at Howard University.
Yale kept the tarnished names, and declined to launch its own official search for whatever entanglements exist.
Brown's entanglement was more provocative - its namesake Browns owned slave ships and slaves - yet its campus remained free of agitation, except once and then in reverse order. David Horowitz, a West Coast conservative gadfly, bought an ad in the Brown Daily Herald in March 2001 citing 10 reasons to oppose reparations. A minority coalition, furious when BDH editors declined to apologize or make amends, then confiscated a BDH press run, intensifying the turmoil. The issues of free speech and minority grievances triggered wide national debate.
At the time, Brown awaited the arrival of newly appointed President Ruth Simmons, who has Southern slaves among her forebears. In 2003, acknowledging the Horowitz "roiling," she initiated Brown's Slavery and Justice research project on reparations for slavery and crimes against humanity - Brown's and the world's. It was a campus-wide tutorial lasting nearly three years, capped by a 106-page report that urged sweeping atonements that Brown is now putting in place.
Simmons expected a "critical intellectual exploration." But if the "open and candid" debate was to include faculty opposition, the Horowitz affair alone made that unlikely. Under pressure, acting President Sheila Blumstein had diluted Brown's initial condemnation of the minority bloc's confiscation, advising Brown that supporting those "with feelings most hurt must also be one of our defining values." It certified the strength of the minority bloc, and that only loomed larger when Simmons took office, despite her inaugural affirmation of free speech.
A couple of years later, invited by campus Republicans, Horowitz lectured at a packed Salomon Hall, with heavy police guard and protesters outside. Simmons sat in the front row, and later, Horowitz credited her for the civility of that evening.
Horowitz's shadow remained. In the Horowitz uproar, debaters wrestled with issues of free speech, confiscation, the minority bloc and reparations. For intellectual excitement, it set a high bar. Simmons seemed to want a similarly spirited response in the slavery tutorial. But without opposition - without Brown's conservatives and inveterate contrarians - it couldn't begin to match the Horowitz excitement. And they remained silent.
"Brown attracts the politically correct, and the capitalists go to Yale," a Brown officer remarked, although Yale's Gilder Lehrman Center for slavery studies, funded by two alumni on Wall Street, is a Yale chip in the reparations game. Brown has been famously liberal since abandoning distribution requirements in its curriculum 38 years ago. And the appointment of Simmons, who rose from poverty and is now 62, added to the image. Parents often ask Simmons about the political imbalance, and in '05, she established the $100,000 Kaleidoscope lecture fund to bring in conservative speakers. Nonetheless, they remain moths beating at Brown's windows.
On its own, the slavery study group brought in conservative John McWhorter, an academic linguist at the Manhattan Institute, who warns fellow blacks that in the half century since their 1950s civil-rights breakthrough that government welfare and various reparative aids have created a new culture, one that keeps blacks thinking of themselves as victims, prolonging the race problem with a syndrome of self-pity.
Brown itself seemed caught up in the syndrome, looking for pity. Is that what happened at Brown, the study group reflecting the syndrome? It piled Rhode Island's sins atop those of its own - the state's appalling thousand-plus slave voyages and their rippling effect in Rhode Island's economy, although the Brown family made only six of the thousand. It emphasized slavers - John Brown - rather than its anti-slavers, such as John's brother Moses, his nephew Nicholas Jr., who was Brown's namesake, and Brown President Francis Wayland. And as though completing the loop of self-pity, when the BDH sought comment nationally about Brown's myriad atonements, two of the movement's three leaders bitterly asked for more.
At Yale and Brown, a slavery response was a president's call to make. Yale's Levin decided not to be drawn into a reparations debate, but for a while, informally, Yale confronted the issue, and there could be doubts about how it would end.
There couldn't be at Brown, with Simmons saying she'd be "very disappointed" at the end if the study group said "there's nothing in particular . . . Brown can do or should do." Brown had a formal, ambitious debate, but without public faculty opponents, it seemed more pretend than real.
In Brown's history, Brown family generosity continued from the late 1700s into the early 1900s, and now, after nearly three centuries of being the royals in Rhode Island, the Browns are finally receding from public view. At campus hearings, they were defended by Sylvia Brown, the London-based daughter of Nicholas Brown IV, of Newport, who wrote in a Nov. 13, 2006, Journal op-ed, "Vicious distortions hurt: Celebrate the Brown family's good deeds," confessing what Brown fund-raisers had noticed for years, that the Brown fortune is largely gone, even while its counting house endures at the foot of College Hill.
The pathos in all of this - Brown's as well as the family's - is buried in Brown's handsome Slavery and Justice report. But it is there.
Lorraine Hopkins is a retired Journal writer and editor.
Elihu Yale with servant