Brenda Allen, a member of a task force that studied Brown University's connection to slavery, spoke about the committee's work in a lecture Tuesday.
Allen’s talk—part of the Duke Human Rights Center’s “Dangerous Memories” series, in which speakers address the challenges of studying the sometimes sordid history of American universities—detailed Brown’s process of studying and reporting its connection to slavery. Concurrently, a Bass Connections project team entitled “The Construction of Memory at Duke and in Durham: Using Memory Studies” is looking at Duke’s history with race.
“As an African American, I came to understand so many things about how the past actually intersects with the future and how much of my own life and my opportunities were bound up in this story,” said Allen, who is currently the provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at Winston-Salem State University. “These are stories that are deeply human and human beings have a lot of different perspectives on it. As we try to come to grips with those ideas as a community, we come to understand the great diversity in those thoughts.”
Allen said that the committee was created in response to multiple racially-charged events at Brown and in the United States in general. She praised Brown's then-president Ruth Simmons for her initiative in forming the committee and her leadership throughout the process.
At the time, many people were looking to Simmons—the African American daughter of a sharecropper in Texas, who grew up to earn graduate degrees from Harvard University—to address the campus' racial issues, she said.
“One thing that I am so proud of President Simmons for was that she understood the significance of the story. She also understood the complexity of the conversation,” Allen said. “These were questions that were intellectual, these were questions about history, they were questions about perspective.”
Allen also noted that the project was a positive undertaking for the university, allowing it to showcase its “intellectual muscle”.
“You want to be on top? Let me see you have courage enough to do this. That's what they wanted,” Allen said. “[They liked] that it was steeped in the fact that it talked about intellectual resources of that institution. It talked about the strength of the mind for figuring out these problems in the way that can lead the nation. It was the kind of the rhetoric that [the board] eventually bought into and supported.”
The committee had members from a diverse array of disciplines, she said. This caused some disagreements initially, specifically about whether contemporary race issues were connected to slavery and whether slavery was a crime against humanity.
However, she noted that they eventually came to a consensus, especially after seeing images of Hurricane Katrina and the intersection of race and poverty in the affected communities.
Allen added, however, that she noticed problems with the implementation of the committee's recommendations. She said that she never saw the completion of one of the recommendations, which called for an oversight committee to ensure that the changes were made. But overall, the University followed through on many of the recommendations, including the formation of a Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice.
First-year Kevin Solomon said he appreciated the talk because of its potential insights for Duke.
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"I thought hearing the perspective of another institution that we often try to compare ourselves with and moreover being able to use their accomplishments and their progress to look back at our own selves and challenge our own institutional realities today is a really interesting thing to consider," Solomon said.