President Ruth Simmons, herself a descendant of slaves, has taken a keen interest in the issue of slavery reparations. This spring she sent a letter inviting eight faculty members, three students, and three deans to form a “steering committee that I hope will help the campus community and the nation come to a better understanding of the complicated, controversial questions surrounding the issue.” The committee met for the first time in early May before disbanding for the summer, but Dean of the College Paul Armstrong, who has been charged with getting it off the ground, says that the group plans to meet monthly during the coming academic year.
What will the committee do? “It’s open,” Armstrong says. “It doesn’t have a particular outcome that it has to steer toward. But Brown, given its history, has an opportunity and a responsibility to do what it can do best: to take intellectual leadership on the issue.” Made up of historians, a political scientist, and experts in Africana studies, American civilization, public policy, and ethnic studies, the committee will likely examine such related issues as Holocaust history and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II (for which the federal government has paid reparations). It may also examine instances of how retrospective justice has been administered in countries like post-apartheid South Africa.
“We may also bring in some people whose expertise we need to examine these issues,” Armstrong says, “people whom we could bring to campus for the entire community to hear.” To historian Joanne Pope Melish ’86, ’96 Ph.D., gestures like these are extremely significant. “You could look at [such committees] cynically as trying to evade responsibility,” she says, “or you can look at them as acknowledging and attempting to take responsibility. If they are the catalyst for frank and full disclosure, maybe we’re on the step to recovery.”
In her letter, Simmons, who is funding the group from her office’s budget, suggests that the committee might sponsor public lectures and colloquia, undergraduate research projects, or special courses. She also hopes that the committee’s work results in a scholarly conference on reparations and a volume of essays or academic papers. “I’m sure she’d love to be a participant,” Armstrong says. “She came to the first meeting to charge the committee and to reinforce what she said in her letter. But given her schedule, I doubt she’ll be able to do it.” —Norman Boucher