Skeletons in the Closet

Skeletons in the Closet

When I was 18, I experienced my first drive with a police escort going to my grandfather’s funeral.  “Rhode Island’s Foremost Citizen Is Dead” splashed the front page of the Providence Journal.  Lengthy obituaries listed all the famous buildings in the world he had saved, his preservation efforts in his home town, his exploits as one of the WWII “Monuments Men,” his endeavors to desegregate the US Navy as Assistant Secretary in the Truman Administration, and many personal anecdotes about his generosity.  My grandfather, who called himself a “professional philanthropist,” truly believed that art and culture could transform the human experience.

A decade later, I sat at Christie’s Auctioneers in New York, watching the sale of my father’s magnificent 18th century mahogany bookcase-on-desk.  The price rocketed to $12.1 million – the highest ever paid for a piece of furniture.  My father donated the entire amount to restore our family’s 1792 house in Providence – though he could easily have kept the proceeds, restored the house, paid the capital gains tax, and saved a nice chunk of the money for himself. The he presented the house and an endowment to Brown University.

Ten years later, I was again seated in a crowded hall with a large press presence.  Brown University had appointed the first African-American president of an Ivy League institution, and Ruth Simmons had created a “Standing Committee on Slavery and Justice” to examine the origins of the university.  Its first public event in Spring 2004 was entitled “Unearthing the Past: Brown University, the Brown Family, and the Rhode Island Slave Trade.”  One of the speakers came up to the microphone and announced: “there were no good Browns.”

That felt like a punch in the stomach.  All I had experienced of the Brown family was philanthropy and public service (my uncle J. Carter Brown was director of the National Gallery of Art and my father was a Naval officer for thirty years, then ran several non-profits).  Had I been fed a bunch of lies?  Was all this philanthropy atoning for the actions of generations 300 years earlier?

The Steering Committee’s concluding report in 2006 devoted half its pages to the Brown family. The media had a field day with my 18th century ancestors, including a five-day series on slavery in the Providence Journal, a 2005 New Yorker piece by Pulitzer-prize winner Frances Fitzgerald, and a successful book “Sons of Providence – The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade and the Revolution.” The Wikipedia entry for Rhode Island now read “In the late 18th century, several Rhode Island merchant families began actively engaging in the triangle slave trade. Notable among these was the Brown family.”  The Brown family had become the poster child for the evils of the slave trade.  On one radio show, a caller asked, “Don’t you think that the Browns owe the descendants of [slaves] something?” This perception continues today.

So what’s the real story?  My ancestors arrived in Rhode Island in 1638 and by the late 18th century had become successful merchants in an Atlantic economy fueled by the slave trade.  Four times in the course of that century, they invested in slaving voyages, ill-advised “get-rich-quick” schemes that all ended badly.  All but one (not my direct ancestor) gave up slave trading by 1765 and emancipated their slaves just before and after the Revolution.  In the 19th century, they worked hard to support Freed Blacks, abolition, and Reconstruction; then desegregation in the 20th century. BUT, and this is the catch, Rhode Island was the biggest slave-trading colony in America, controlling the lion’s share of the Triangular Trade. Almost 700 families undertook over 900 voyages.  And after slave trading was outlawed, illegal slaving by Rhode Islanders continued well into the 19th century.  So any successful merchant would have benefitted directly or indirectly from slavery.  Evil needed a face and that face was my family.

It’s a lot more comfortable to blame a few rich, white men for an evil in which almost every New Englander was complicit.  The College of Rhode Island was founded in 1762 by the Baptist Society of Philadelphia and implanted in Providence (rather than the more prosperous Newport) thanks to an intensive lobbying effort by my ancestors who gave the land and first college building (it was only renamed Brown University in 1804 in honor of a later ancestor).  Funds for the fledgling university were raised all up and down the Eastern seaboard – and thus every penny was derived directly or indirectly from the slave trade.  As noted in a The New York Times editorial of October 23rd, 2006: “Brown [University] did indeed benefit in its early years from money generated by the slave trade and by industries dependent on slavery. It did so in an era when slavery permeated the social and economic life of Rhode Island.” Our extensive family archive is housed on Brown’s campus or nearby, making it much easier to focus on one family in a sensationalist manner, despite President Simmon’s charge that the Steering Committee “might help the nation and the Brown community think deeply, seriously, and rigorously about the issues raised in the emerging debate over slavery and reparations.”

My initial reaction was to think, “we are being punished for our success.” I even envied people who could claim that their grandfather arrived penniless in America and knew nothing about their ancestors! But I undertook 12 long years of research and discovered a fascinating story over eleven generations that actually mirrors the history of how Americans give.  This initiative culminated in my book “Grappling With Legacy – Rhode Island’s Brown Family and the American Philanthropic Impulse.”  I wanted to show how the Brown family’s view of “doing good” evolved over eleven generations alongside America’s attitudes towards giving through the centuries.  I also wanted to show that judging the past through 21st century eyes serves little purpose.

Nothing can erase the past, but we can learn from it to make thoughtful choices and to effect positive change in the present.  Every family is made up of stories it can be proud of, and stories it wishes had never happened.  We all have skeletons in our family closets – I just happen to know what mine are.  But where does the sense of guilt end? With ridiculous questions such as “Is it worse to be the grand-daughter of a Nazi officer, a tobacco manufacturer or a rapist”? Despite the Judeo-Christian belief in atonement, I do not consider it useful or even possible to expiate mistakes made by our forefathers.  Part of our legacy is what we have in our DNA, but the other, vital, part is what we choose to do with the values and examples that our families have instilled in us.

I do believe that we all have an obligation to ask ourselves hard questions about making the biggest possible difference in the world today. If we allow ourselves to be haunted by the past, we will never have the energy to work for a better future. Personally, I am very concerned about the 45 million slaves on this planet – far more than in the 18th century – and the political and economic instability that is pushing thousands of people weekly into the hands of traffickers.

Writing my book was therapeutic because it allowed me to correct misrepresentations and establish accurate facts – warts and all. But my legacy will be my actions and what I do to make the world a better place.