For so many institutions wrestling with understanding, acknowledging, and initiating a process of atonement for historical entanglement in human bondage, Brown University’s pioneering work over a decade ago has long stood as the gold standard for how to embark. We here at the University of Virginia looked directly to Brown University in particular (as well as Emory University and the College of William and Mary) as we began our own commission work four years ago.
As we thought about how we might achieve what Brown had and how we might be able to in some sense move beyond them, we came to realize that collaborating, sharing, and learning from other schools was quite powerful. Toward that end, we first created a small consortium of Virginia schools in 2015: the Virginia Colleges and Universities Studying Slavery (VCUSS) group. It first met in summer 2015 at UVA. In fall 2015, we learned that Georgetown University had formed a working group, so we reached out to them and asked them to join. At that point, the small, informal, and state-level VCUSS had to change.
Universities Studying Slavery (USS) was thus born in late 2015 when the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University (PCSU) decided to both expand the group to include any school (in the U.S. or beyond) doing similar work or planning on it AND make membership a bit more formalized and robust. At that time, USS remained focused on the present and future–connecting schools doing this work in the present or planning to do so in the future. Since late 2015 when Georgetown University became the first institution to join formally after invitation from UVA’s PCSU, USS has grown rapidly, evidence of the power and importance of the work of acknowledging and atoning for past institutional involvement in slavery or the slave trade. This growth is also a testament to the enduring importance of Brown University’s work from 2003 to 2006.
In 2003, then Brown University President Ruth Simmons formed the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. The committee investigated the University’s historical relationship to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade and organized public programs to help school and nation reflect on the meaning of this history as well as moral questions posed by any present-day confrontation with past injustice. In 2006, the committee issued a formal report. One lasting result of the steering committee’s work was the formation of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. The Center’s inaugural and current director is Professor Anthony Bogues.
We are thrilled to announce that Brown University President Christina Paxson has officially accepted our invitation and appointed Professor Bogues as the Brown representative. Please welcome Brown University, long a spiritual guide for USS schools, as a participating member of Universities Studying Slavery!