April 24, 2002

Committee Targets Ivies for Lawsuits

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The Reparations Coordinating Committee (RCC), a group working towards awarding reparations for slavery, recently announced in a New York Times editorial that it would be considering lawsuits against several Ivy League universities.

Possible Litigants

Prof. Charles Ogletree Jr., Harvard Law School and co-chairman of the RCC, said in his March 31 editorial that Brown University, Yale University and Harvard Law School are all being considered for potential lawsuits this autumn.

According to Ogletree’s editorial, “the broader reparations movement seeks to explore the historical role that other private institutions and government played during slavery and the era of legal racial discrimination that followed. The goal of these historical investigations is to bring American society to a new reckoning with how our past affects the current conditions of African-Americans and to make America a better place by helping the truly disadvantaged.”

The RCC is a group of, “lawyers, academics, public officials and activists,” according to Ogletree.

Other members of the RCC include co-chair Randall Robinson (author of the book The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks), former Harvard University professor-now Princeton University professor Cornel West and Manning Marble, director of Columbia’s Institute for Research in African-American

If the lawsuit proceeds, it will not be the first of its kind.

In March, Manhattan resident Deadria Farmer-Paellman filed a suit in a federal court in Brooklyn against FleetBoston Financial Corporation, Aetna Inc. and the CSX Corporation. According to the suit, these companies in the past have benefited from slave labor.

Tracie Sweeney, senior associate director of the Brown News Service, said that there was no official response from the university since no lawsuits had been filed yet. However, Sweeney said that an investigation of the relationship between the university and slavery was already in progress before the potential lawsuits were announced. “Even before the possibility [of a lawsuit], Brown had started its own research of the founder’s backgrounds,” she said.

Mark Nickel, director of Brown News Service said that Brown University is named after Nicholas Brown Jr., who donated $5000 to the university in 1804. According to Nickel, “he was an abolitionist and he used some of his fortune to support abolitionist causes.” In addition, Brown’s brother, Moses Brown, was also a member of the abolitionist movement.

John Brown, Nicholas’s uncle, however, supported the slave trade. According to Nickel, John Brown is, “among the people who signed the charter” of Brown University in 1764.

“The Brown family itself ended up deeply divided,” Nickel said, “they disagreed about slavery, the slave trade and holding slaves.”

There are indications that slave labor may have been used in the construction of Brown’s University hall. The national historical landmark is also the oldest building on Brown’s campus. Nickel said that, “there are references in the construction records to four slaves” but that it is unclear as to who they worked for or what role they had in the construction.

Dorie Baker, information officer in the public affairs office at Yale also said that there had been no lawsuit filed against the university. According to Baker, Yale will host a conference in the fall at the Law School entitled “Yale, New Haven, and Slavery,” which will discuss the impact of slavery on Yale and other institutions.

“Yale has become a center of study and research about the problem,” Baker said. “We’re very pleased about that.”

Yale University has been at the center of some controversy due to a recent publication by several graduate students entitled, “Yale, Slavery and Abolition,” which outlines the alleged involvement of several Yale founders with slavery.

According to a report in Yale Alumni Magazine, while Yale is associated with abolitionists such as James Hillhouse, senator and treasurer of Yale, it also is associated with such known slavery proponents as John C. Calhoun, (after whom one of the University’s residential colleges is named after).

Robert Forbes, associate director of the Glider Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale said that the connection between universities and slavery is, “part of a larger framework of a really massive influence of slavery.”

Forbes explained that in the 19th century, slavery became the “largest national export,” responsible for the wealth of many Americans both in the North and South. Forbes also pointed out that the North was not without fault in the slave trade, as Northern banks gave out loans to Southern farmers where slaves were used as collateral because, “the South was a cash poor economy.”

Cornell is not one of the universities being considered for a lawsuit. Forbes described Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White as both staunchly opposed to slavery. According to Forbes, “Cornell comes off as looking pretty good. It’s a militant pro-union and anti-slavery university.”

Thus far the most outspoken opponent of slavery reparations has been conservative David Horowitz, who made headlines at colleges across the country last year when he attempted to publish an ad entitled “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea — and Racist Too” in forty-seven college newspapers. Nine newspapers, including The Brown Daily Herald, published the ad. At Brown, the ad provoked groups of students to steal nearly the entire press of the newspaper. The Sun refused to print the ad.

Forbes said that he had no official position on the reparations lawsuit, “since we are a research institution, not a political one.” However, Forbes said the “lawsuits that have been proposed so far are fairly scattershot.”

According to Forbes, “I’d like to see an approach that generates a lot more knowledge and information.”

Archived article by Kate Cooper