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May 17, 2016

In 2014, Brown University built a memorial to the slave trade in Rhode Island. (Credit: Warren Jagger)

Ten years ago, Brown University did something unheard of at the time: It commissioned a report, Slavery and Justice, that dug deep into its own ties to slavery. 

What the Ivy League institution found was not very flattering.

“We found that the Brown family was very central to the slave trade," said Barrymore Bogues a professor of Africana Studies at Brown. "And, therefore, their philanthropy money would have come from [slavery]."

Bogues helped write the landmark report, which found the Brown family benefited from money generated by the slave trade.

Rhode Island was the northern hub of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and when Brown was founded in the mid-18th century, slaves accounted for 10 percent of the state's population. 

The report recommended that Brown open a center for studying slavery and justice, which Bogues now directs.

Professor Barrymore Bogues directs Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, established during the 2012-2013 academic year. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH)

Brown also created a scholarship fund for low-income students in Providence Public Schools and in 2014 the university built a memorial to the slave trade in Rhode Island - right in the center of the campus.

With this memorial and tweaks to the curriculum, Brown has served as a model for other colleges struggling to come to grips with their past.

Just this year alone, Harvard Law School changed its official shield because it contained the crest of a plantation owner. At Georgetown, administrators renamed two buildings originally named after Jesuit priests involved in selling slaves. Yale has expanded financial aid to low-income students and created a center for the study of race.

Still, student activists think elite colleges should do more than rename old buildings and open new centers. They want reparations, including scholarships for the descendants of slaves who were sold to finance these institutions.

"I want to see actual tangible change and I don’t mean tangible as in I can touch the plaque or I can see the plaque," said Assani York, a sophomore at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. "I want to see [administrators] redressing names. I want to see them try to change the culture of the place.”

Earlier this year, York organized a campus protest demanding, among other things, that Princeton rename the Woodrow Wilson School because the former president was a segregationist. Princeton refused, but York and other student demonstrators are still pushing.

Earlier: Amid State Funding Cuts, Public Research Universities Find Unlikely Advocate

Others in academia say putting up plaques and changing the names of buildings is a slippery slope. 

"It’s very easy to start this kind of thing. It’s very difficult to quit,” said Ted Gup a writer and professor at Emerson College. "Most institutions are so stained by history that once you start revisiting it, everything will fall. If you’re going to go into the historical record and really address it, then let’s bring it all forward and examine it. I’m not sure that changing seals and names is the right way to do it. I think education is the right way," Gup said.

At Brown, that's the route Professor Bogues and his colleagues are pursuing. Campus historians are currently rewriting Brown's history, with a focus on the role of slavery. Administrators are also considering whether to include that history as part of freshman orientation.

"I think any university - liberal or not - once it says, 'We are a university that aims to have to produce knowledge and to produce citizens of the world,' then it has an obligation to confront its past," Bogues said.

Of course, making the past part of the DNA of campus life is a long process and not one that will be completed overnight.

Related: Harvard President Calls On Institution To Recognize Ties To Slavery

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