Skip to content

CLEMENS: Rutgers attempts to face colonial history

 – Photo by null

On the eve of the 1765 Stamp Act crisis that began the protests leading to the American Revolution, Nicholas Brown and Company of Providence, Rhode Island, dispatched the 100-ton brig, "Sally" with a cargo of Rhode Island distilled rum to the West Coast of Africa to trade for slaves. The "company" was four brothers: John, Joseph and Moses, as well as Nicholas Brown, the second generation of a family of merchants and occasional slave traders from a colonial town that dominated the Triangle Trade that linked the British mainland colonies, Africa and the Caribbean. For the brothers, the trip was a financial disaster. For the enslaved, it was far worse. Many died after being purchased while the Sally idled in African waters. Once on the Atlantic, an enslaved woman hanged herself. Others revolted and were cut down by the crew. Additional suicides followed, while others died from refusals to eat or starvation. When the Sally finally returned to Providence, three of the brothers permanently withdrew from slave trading, probably because of the risks. John, however, carried on and became one of the prominent defenders of the trade in the era of the American Revolution. Moses, in contrast, converted to Quakerism, freed those he had enslaved and became an abolitionist. The Browns enter history not only for the well-known debates between Moses and John about abolitionism but also because the four brothers, and many of their heirs, played a major role in founding the College of Rhode Island, later Brown University, and having it moved to Providence. The story of the Sally is one of those told in "Slavery and Justice: Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice." Brown's 2007 report is perhaps the most comprehensive of those produced by the descendents of the colonial colleges, all of which were entangled with the institution of slavery and with the lives of the enslaved. Rutgers, of course, was one of those colonial colleges.

When I trained as a colonial historian in the 1970s, I read about the Brown family and its involvement in the slave trade, and one of my fellow graduate students wrote his dissertation on the "notorious triangle" trade of Rhode Island with Africa and the Caribbean. For scholars there is nothing particularly surprising about how deeply slavery wove itself into the fabric of life in virtually every colony, north as well as south, and into the early modern world, from Europe, to the Americas, to South Asia and Africa. But professional history and memory are different. What the spate of studies and reflections by American universities of their entanglement with slavery and those enslaved has demonstrated is a past that is no longer part of American memory. These studies, including the one now undertaken at Rutgers, also make it clear that there is more to be done than merely documenting the slave ownership of those who founded colonial colleges.

In 2015, "Rutgers: A 250th Anniversary Portrait" laid out what was currently known about the slave ownership of Rutgers founders: That as wealthy residents of New York and New Jersey of Dutch ancestry they were quite likely to have owned slaves. It also noted that Henry Rutgers, whose bequest to Queen's College led to its renaming in his honor, was a slave owner. (Henry Rutgers's life, and his involvement with slavery, will be explored by historian David Fowler in forthcoming issues of the "Journal of the Rutgers University Libraries.") The University has established two committees, both with student and faculty memberships, to explore the past and make recommendations for the future based on that exploration.

The Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations, chaired by the Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History Deborah Gray White (and which the writer is also a member), is primarily tasked with studying the role of enslaved and disenfranchised populations in Rutgers—New Brunswick's history. The inquiry encompasses the entanglement with slavery but also the Lenape people's loss of their land rights in New Jersey. Student committee member Monica Torres noted that she expects that the committee will provide the historical background necessary to understand contemporary issues. Another committee member, Marisa Fuentes, a professor in the Departments of Women's and Gender Studies and History, explained to the writer that the committee must do more than establish the connection between slaveholding and the college founders. It must also try to give voice to the enslaved and free black people connected to the college and the broader New Brunswick community — a time-consuming and difficult task of going deep into archives that have but scant traces of such largely undocumented voices.

The Brown's "Slavery and Justice" report ended with a nuanced discussion of "retrospective justice." How have and should institutions and states confront their "traumatic histories," and what role do history, public memorials, apologies and reparations play in that settlement with the past? The Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations, and its counterpart, the Task Force on Inclusion and Community Values, will have recommendations to that end by next November.

Paul G. E. Clemens is a professor of history and author of "Rutgers since 1945: A History of the State University of New Jersey." He will alternate the column, "Past Imperfect" with Benjamin Justice, chair of the Department of Educational Theory, Policy and Administration in the Graduate School of Education, and Carla Yanni, a professor in the Department of Art History. Their column runs on alternate Mondays.


YOUR VOICE | The Daily Targum welcomes submissions from all readers. Due to space limitations in our print newspaper, letters to the editor must not exceed 500 words. Guest columns and commentaries must be between 700 and 850 words. All authors must include their name, phone number, class year and college affiliation or department to be considered for publication. Please submit via email to by 4 p.m. to be considered for the following day’s publication. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.


Join our newsletterSubscribe