Document Type





Imagining America


Arts and Humanities


James T. Campbell, asssociate professor of American Civilization, Africana Studies, and History, Brown University, asks: “What happens if we see our past whole? How might we take full ownership of our history, not only of the aspects that are gracious and honorable but also of those that are grievous and horrifying? What responsibilities, if any, rest upon us in the present as inheritors of this mixed legacy? Brown’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice represents one institution’s attempt to answer this question.”

In this essay, originally given as the keynote address for Imagining America’s 2007 conference, James Campbell examines the university’s historical implication in slavery and injustice. Campbell details fully the reliance on the slave trade of both the Brown family, for whom the university is named, and of the entire Providence business community. Slave ships departing from that port required the services of riggers, caulkers, ironwrights, distillers, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, apothecaries, surgeons, and more. In his description of the preparations for the middle passage, Campbell draws scrupulously on historical documents to narrate the suffering, deaths, and insurrections on board one particular voyage, the Sally, in 1764-65, commissioned by the Brown family. By applying the scholarly tools of the academic trade to an encounter with Brown University’s own history and contemplating our subsequent responsibilities in the present, Campbell, on behalf of the entire Committee, invites all of us to hold our institutions accountable to their pasts.

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This article is from Imagining America Forseeable Futures, for more information please see:


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Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.