Sins of our Fathers

By Sasha Polakow-Suransky ’01 / July / August 2003
June 22nd, 2007
In March 2002 a New York City lawyer named Deadria Farmer-Paellmann filed an unusual lawsuit against three corporate giants. Claiming that the companies’ predecessors had subsidized slave voyages during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and had sold insurance policies on the lives of slaves, Farmer-Paellmann argues that such corporations must now make amends by paying reparations to the descendants of slaves. The lawsuit alleges conspiracy, unjust enrichment, and human rights violations. It demands a full accounting of the companies’ involvement in the slave trade as well as a relinquishing of slavery profits. Among the thirteen plaintiffs are three elderly African Americans whose father was a slave. Although in the lawsuit Farmer-Paellmann specifically targets FleetBoston, Aetna, and railway giant CSX, she singles out a number of other institutions as benefiting or having benefited from the business of slavery, among them Harvard, Yale, and Brown. In fact, the same month the lawsuit was filed, Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree wrote a New York Times opinion piece arguing that the three universities are “the beneficiaries of grants and endowments traced back to slavery.”

The reparations lawsuit was merely the latest salvo in a rancorous national debate over the responsibility of existing institutions for slavery. Reparations demands have long been on the agenda of black radical groups, but they did not really seep into public consciousness until the December 2000 publication of Randall Robinson’s The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. Robinson, a leading figure of the South African divestment campaign of the 1980s, explicitly links the rise of the reparations movement to the backlash against affirmative action, which he describes as having been “effectively killed and rolled back.” Whatever its motivation, Farmer-Paellmann’s lawsuit has certainly garnered more press attention than the fourteen-year effort by Michigan Democratic Congressman John Conyers to establish a government commission to study the legacy of slavery and the possibility of reparations.

The reparations debate surfaced at Brown in March 2001, when the editors of the Brown Daily Herald faced protests after publishing a paid advertisement by political commentator David Horowitz titled “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Is a Bad Idea—and Racist Too.” (See “The War over Words” in the May/June 2001 BAM.) Although the charged rhetoric has, temporarily at least, drifted out of the spotlight, activists managed three years ago to get a public apology from Aetna for insuring the lives of slaves, and in California the names of all slaves insured by Aetna, AIG, and New York Life prior to 1865 has been made public information, along with the names of slave owners who purchased the policies. Farmer-Paellmann’s suit increases the pressure by raising serious questions about a subject most citizens would prefer to relegate to the distant past. To what extent, for example, are white Americans responsible for the sins of their fathers? What legal and moral responsibilities, if any, does today’s society have toward the descendants of slaves? And, of particular interest to Brown, do universities founded during the heyday of slavery bear particular culpability for what was once the powerhouse of the New England economy—and thus a particular duty to provide reparations? And what, exactly, are slavery reparations advocates looking for anyway?

Answering these questions requires some historical context. According to historian Jay Coughtry’s 1981 definitive history of the Rhode Island slave trade, The Notorious Triangle, “a regular and continuous trade in African slaves of substantial proportions was pursued in only one colony and state”: Rhode Island. Where other states dabbled, the Ocean State dominated. Between 1725 and 1807, more than 900 ships sailed from Rhode Island to the west coast of Africa, often laden with rum that the crew traded for humans. Over those eight decades Rhode Island vessels brought an estimated 106,000 slaves across the Atlantic, and ships owned by merchants in Providence, Newport, and Bristol accounted for more than 60 percent of slaving voyages during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. According to Brown graduate student Rachel Chernos Lin, the slave trade during that time was ubiquitous and reached across class lines. “There were investors from all levels of society,” says Lin, whose dissertation examines Rhode Island slave traders and their communities. “It was difficult for Rhode Islanders, if they were involved in commerce, not to touch the slave trade.”

Among those involved in Rhode Island commerce was the Brown family of Providence. The first of the Browns arrived in the New World in 1638; after three generations of thriving as farmers, surveyors, and pastors, the family, and in particular the brothers James and Obadiah, turned to trade with the West Indies, which included slaving. Goods traded in the West Indies brought molasses to Rhode Island. Rum was shipped to Africa in exchange for slaves, who were sold in the Caribbean and in South Carolina and other southern states, thus beginning the cycle all over again. The full extent of the Browns’ slaving activity will never be known, but this much is certain: The family’s first recorded involvement came in 1736, when the sloop Mary, which was owned by James and Obadiah, set sail for the Guinea coast. According to James B. Hedges’s authoritative two-volume history, The Browns of Providence Plantations, records of the time document that Obadiah sold the Mary’s cargo of slaves in the West Indies, then brought three of them to Providence, where James put them up for sale for £120.

The voyage may not have been hugely profitable, because according to Jay Coughtry’s compilation of its records and Hedges’s history of the family, the Browns’ next known slaving voyage was not until twenty-three years later, in 1759, when Obadiah and his nephew Nicholas Sr. sent the schooner Wheel of Fortune to Africa. This trip certainly did not go well, because Obadiah’s records note that the ship was “taken,” presumably by French pirates known to be raiding ships off the African coast.

Not surprisingly, this was Obadiah’s last venture in the slave trade. But the next generation of Browns, which included James’s five sons, James, Nicholas, Joseph, John, and Moses, soon picked up the trade. Nicholas Brown and Company, the brothers’ family business, invested in another voyage in 1764, the same year Brown University (then called Rhode Island College) was founded. Laden with rum, rice, tobacco, and flour, the brig Sally departed for the coast of Africa under the command of captain Esek Hopkins. According to Nicholas’s sailing orders as preserved in the John Carter Brown Library, Nicholas instructed Hopkins that after picking up slaves in Africa he should proceed to the West Indies to “Dispose of your cargo of slaves if you can obtain a good price for them or otherwise you may proceed to any other port.” He added, “You are to bring four likely Young Slaves Home for Owners about 15 Years old.”

Brown’s letter to Hopkins also reveals how commissions were paid to captains in the form of African slaves. “For every Hundered [sic] and four slaves In the West Indies or Where ever sold,” he wrote, “You are to have four.” But by the time Hopkins reached the West Indies, dozens of slaves had died—including eight shot by the crew during an uprising—and many were too sick to be sold. Though the voyage was a financial catastrophe for the Browns, they continued to hold Hopkins in high esteem. They were not alone: in 1775 he became the first commander-in-chief of the Continental Navy.

One member of the Brown family began exhibiting moral qualms over the slave trade, however. When Moses converted to Quakerism after his wife’s death in 1773, he not only quit the family slave trade, he became an abolitionist. This placed him in direct opposition to his brother John, who remained both an active slave trader and an opponent of measures to outlaw the practice. The first attempt to ban slave trading in Rhode Island came in 1774, when the General Assembly passed a law—which was largely ignored and little enforced—forbidding slaves to be brought into the colony. Ten years later Rhode Island went further by enacting a gradual emancipation law; John Brown, who was by then serving in the legislature and who the previous year had received an honorary degree from the University, voted against it.

John increasingly found himself in the minority, however. Just as Rhode Island had been the epicenter of the slave trade, the state soon became a breeding ground for opposition to it. Abolitionists, including Moses Brown and the Rev. Samuel Hopkins (no relation to Esek), continued to rail against what Moses called the “Unrighteous Traffic.” In 1787 they succeeded in pushing through the first state law in the newly independent United States that prohibited the African slave trade. Rhode Island traders responded by moving their ships to Connecticut ports. Then in 1794, under pressure from Moses Brown and other abolitionists, Congress passed the Federal Slave Trade Act, a law intended to break the back of the triangular trade operating between New England, West Africa and the Carribean. The act prohibited the outfitting of ships destined to transport slaves in any American port. John Brown was not deterred. He continued to trade in slaves. According to Coughtry and the Brown family papers, John financed a trading voyage to Africa in 1785 and three more in 1795.

The 1795 voyages further heightened the conflict between John and Moses. By now Moses had become a leader in the abolition movement, which was pressuring authorities to more aggressively enforce the 1794 Federal Slave Trade Act. Appalled that Rhode Island slave traders were not only ignoring the law but were undertaking even greater numbers of slave voyages, the Abolition Society petitioned the district attorney to charge John Brown and fellow slave trader Cyprian Sterry.

John turned to his brother, exchanging with Moses a series of angry letters in the spring and summer of 1797. During this heated correspondence, Moses suggested that John was continuing to engage in the slave trade “for the Avowed purpose of Trying the strength” of the Federal Slave Trade Act. He admonished his older brother to “look at the consequences of violating a righteous law.” John, concerned mainly with avoiding prosecution, begged Moses to use his influence among the abolitionists. “I wish You Could prevent me the Trouble of Attending Court by some Accomodation [sic],” he wrote, lamenting that he “has sufficient Troubles from the State of the times & other Surcemstances [sic].”

No accommodation was reached. Looking to dodge a conviction, John’s fellow slaver Sterry disavowed the slave trade, but John refused to follow. Instead he gained the dubious honor of becoming the first Rhode Islander (and perhaps the first American) ever prosecuted for violating the 1794 Federal Slave Trade Act. John managed to prevail in court, however, and was acquitted in June 1798, celebrating his victory over the “Wicked and Abominable Combination I mean the Abolition Society.” Later that year he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. When an amendment strengthening the Federal Slave Trade Act passed Congress in 1800, John Brown took to the floor to criticize the measure. He was one of only five members to vote against it.

THE REPARATIONS CASE against FleetBoston rests heavily on allegations that its predecessor, the Providence Bank, helped finance John Brown’s slave trading ventures and collected customs duties from slave ships. The involvement of the Brown family in the slave trade is indisputable, but to what extent is the university named after Nicholas’s son, Nicholas Jr., tarnished by its deeds? Was there any direct connection between slaving and the college that would become Brown? Was slave money used to help establish the school?

The connection seems stronger at Harvard and Yale, where the documentary evidence is clear. Harvard Law School’s first endowed professorship, the Isaac Royall Chair, was funded from money earned at Royall’s slave plantation in Antigua. Similarly, Yale’s first endowed professorship honored Philip Livingston, a slave trader. The first Yale scholarship was named for Bishop George Berkeley, who during his three-year stay in the colonies from 1728 to 1731 bought several slaves as well as a Newport plantation called Whitehall, which he later donated to Yale. In addition, the first funds put toward the establishment of the Yale library came from the will of Jared Eliot, another slaveholder.

Historians who have studied Rhode Island’s early economic history say the tie is far murkier at Brown. The Brown brothers were certainly instrumental in helping the city of Providence outbid Newport as the site for Rhode Island College, which would later become Brown, in 1764. The brothers contributed £760 of the original £4,175 raised for construction of the college, and Nicholas is listed as one of the original incorporators in the charter.

Nevertheless, it is virtually impossible to trace the Brown brothers’ contribution to the establishment of the college, according to economic historian Naomi Lamoreaux of UCLA, a former professor of history at Brown. Lamoreaux is the author of a book on the history of the Providence Bank, which was established in 1791 with John Brown as its first president. “They’re not going to find anything in the records,” says Lamoreaux of any reparations lawyers who might be looking for a paper trail linking Brown to slavery. Only names are listed; the specific purpose of loans is not recorded, she explains.

No lawsuits against educational institutions have yet been filed, but that has not prevented lawyers on both sides from speculating about whether or not one might succeed. In their 2002 lawsuit, Farmer-Paellmann and lawyer Diane Sammons put forth a complex and innovative argument relying on property, tort, and international law. Should they decide to go after a school, they will likely use a similar legal strategy. Plaintiffs, according to Sammons, would “ask institutions to disgorge any benefit that they derived from unpaid labor.” Even simple property law could be used to seek reparations from certain universities where a clear paper trail linking the institution to the slave trade is evident.

On the surface, at least, this is a compelling strategy. According to University of Alabama law professor Alfred Brophy, property law dictates that “when you receive a gift you take that gift subject to all the defenses and claims against the donor.” Brophy likens the situation to a man taking out a $50,000 loan, buying a car, and giving the car to a friend. If the man then dies, the friend, as recipient of the gift, is “standing in the shoes” of the man who gave it to him. Likewise, argues Brophy, “Harvard Law School is standing in the shoes of Isaac Royall.” In his view, the claims against Harvard Law School are even stronger than those against FleetBoston and Aetna. One could make a similar argument against Yale.

But is Brown, with no paper trail tying John Brown’s slaving directly to the financing of the University, also vulnerable? It might be, says Eric Miller, a criminal justice fellow at Harvard Law School and a member of the brain trust behind the reparations litigation. The weak spot may be that University Hall was constructed partially with slave labor. “The real way to get at it is to use property law as a way of saying that property created by identifiable individuals has been taken,” says Miller. Plaintiffs would need to “show that property had been created by the slaves and misappropriated by the institution.… By misappropriating property, slave owners were engaging in acts that they knew were wrongful.”

Some reparations critics believe that holding an institution like Brown responsible for actions taken almost 275 years ago will never hold up. UC Berkeley professor John McWhorter has argued in the New York Times that “slavery when those people lived was largely an unquestioned part of existence. It’s downright inappropriate to render a moral judgment on the worth of a person’s life based on moral standards that didn’t exist at the time.” But, Miller counters, John Brown continued in the slave trade after it was declared illegal under both state and federal law. What he was doing was no longer the norm—and therein lies the problem for Brown. “It serves the interests of justice to call to account institutions that are profitable now because they misappropriated the property of others,” he insists. “Brown is the same institution now as when it was founded. Brown needs to accept that and own up to it.”

SKEPTICS, INCLUDING BOSTON UNIVERSITY LAW SCHOOL torts specialist Keith Hylton, believe the Farmer-Paellmann case is unlikely to succeed due to the immense legal hurdles it faces. Critics such as Glenn Loury, director of Boston University’s Institute on Race and Social Division, warn that a successful reparations lawsuit could end up helping white Americans feel even less responsible for slavery than they do now. “This quid pro quo approach—cashing out of the African American moral claim on the society—is a mistake,” he says. “Even if it were to succeed it would have the effect of packaging, making finite a moral obligation that I think should be open-ended.” Instead, Loury advocates liberal social policies that would benefit impoverished black Americans. “What I’m advocating is politics,” he says. “[Reparations] is a substitute for politics. It’s special pleading based on real historical victimization. It’s not a program.”

Though Hylton is skeptical about the recent lawsuit, he does view the demand for a complete accounting of slavery and how it was financed as realistic and genuinely beneficial to society. “This is information that should be in public hands,” says Hylton. “Unless you have this kind of information brought out into the public, the tendency of the winner’s story to fill up all the pages is just too strong. That has a continuing demoralizing effect.”

In fact, the target of reparations advocates may not be the pocketbooks of institutions like Brown as much as it is the hearts and minds of Americans in general and northerners in particular. In the eyes of historian Joanne Pope Melish ’86, ’96 Ph.D., targeting individual corporations does not address the real issue. “To the degree you blame individuals, you let society off the hook,” she says. Whites in northern regions like New England, Melish says, are interested in slavery as something that happened somewhere else a long time ago: “They don’t see their society as having emerged out of it or their prosperity dependent on it.” For generations, she explains, New Englanders have been raised on the myth that virtuous white northerners who had long since given up the immoral slave trade marched south in the cause of justice. Forgotten are John Brown’s impassioned defenses of the slave trade and the fact that, thanks to slavery, Newport’s population in the late eighteenth century was nearly 30 percent black.

In her book, Disowning Slavery, Melish argues that most northerners are unaware of New England’s “ongoing enrichment at the expense of black labor.” As a result, she says, New Englanders could in good conscience absolve themselves of responsibility for the ongoing poverty of blacks in the north. “By conveniently and quickly forgetting about the history of slavery” in the north, New Englanders have been able “to look at black communities here—disproportionately poor and disproportionately illiterate—and absent of a reason for that, say it must be their innate inferiority.” In effect, historical amnesia planted the seeds of northern racism.

“The main goal of the reparations movement,” says Eric Miller, “is to find innovative ways of keeping the issue of social justice at the forefront of the American consciousness.” Diane Sammons echoes this argument: “We’re not asking for individual checks,” she says. “That would be divisive and difficult. We’re asking for a fund to be created to address the harm slavery caused and continues to cause.”

Even plaintiff’s attorney Deadria Farmer-Paellmann emphasizes that her lawsuit is not solely about educating the public. “We definitely want the companies to atone,” she says. “We want closure to this whole historical ordeal. We want apologies, and we want restitution.” Yet she recognizes that the lasting effect will not be financial. Publicity over the lawsuit, she says, “gives folks within this country a chance to learn.”

She adds that a gesture from a place like Brown would go a long way toward advancing this learning: “It’s important for [such institutions] from a moral standpoint to serve as a role model to others. It might serve well to do something symbolic. They can create some legacy scholarships for descendants of people who were enslaved. It cannot harm the university in doing that.”

These days, one of Brown’s richest historical ironies is that University Hall, built with the help of slave labor, has as its highest ranking occupant a descendant of slaves. And President Ruth Simmons does not appear to be rattled by the war drums of reparations lawyers. Speaking to students and faculty at her inauguration in the fall of 2001, Simmons—who has not taken a position on whether or not slavery reparations should be paid—described her discomfort facing the portraits of some of Brown’s slave-trading founders and benefactors that hang throughout campus.

“We must not hide from the fact, for it is a part of our past,” she said, “and in speaking its truth, we not only let the light in, but we give it air, making it shine more brightly. But I am not here to alter what cannot be changed, nor to condemn what is in the past. I am here to affirm what the University has become today, and what it aspires to be. There is dignity in who we are and the path we have chosen today. Let us be judged by that.”

Rhodes Scholar Sasha Polakow-Suransky will begin a doctorate in South African history at Oxford in October.
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