An unwillingness to confront the legacy of slavery harms the prospects of black males, says the first African-American head of an Ivy League university. David Jobbins meets her.
Almost 200 years since the transportation of slaves was declared illegal by the British Government, the slave trade remains an open sore in US life. Ruth Simmons recognises this more than most - her great-grandmother was a slave and much of Simmons's early childhood was spent on a cotton plantation in rural Texas. For this reason, Simmons, president of Brown University and the first African-American to head a US Ivy League institution, has a particular interest in the imminent findings of a committee looking into her university's links with the slave trade and ways of understanding its legacy. The report will also be of interest to UK universities with historic links to the slave trade, however tenuous.
The establishment in 2003 of Brown's Committee on Slavery and Justice, after a row over reparations that started before Simmons was appointed, caused much controversy in the US, and Simmons feels she was misrepresented at the time.
A columnist in USA Today categorised her as either a "visionary leader" or a "misguided racial muckraker" and in effect accused her of "fuelling the reparations fire". What hurt Simmons was the fact that the writer was himself an African-American who, she argues, sought to undermine a proper academic inquiry by latching on to the political reparations agenda.
Simmons explained at the time that the purpose of the committee was to review Brown's - and the nation's - relationship with the legacy of slavery in an academic context, free of the "emotional venting, name-calling and one-sided statements" characteristic of public debate in the US. "So often, students - and citizens - take the purpose of debate to be that of stating to others their point of view, rather than improving their understanding by engaging (with) strongly opposing arguments," she wrote at the time. "Quite to the contrary, our committee brings together different approaches and views to model the use of rigour, discipline, breadth, objectivity and diversity in the search for truth."
The passage of time has not diminished her conviction that it is vital that institutions such as Brown face up to their shared past. "We should stop running away," she said during a visit to London last month. "We cannot solve social problems by running away. If universities cannot face some of the most difficult issues, we are doomed because we will never solve our social problems.
"As societies, we must be better at facing these issues squarely and developing strategies for dealing with them, rather than waiting for them to explode. Universities have an obligation to put in front of people questions that society would rather ignore."
The questions raised for a university such as Brown are complex. James Manning, the founder of the school's predecessor institution, Rhode Island College, freed his only slave. But Brown accepted donations from slave owners and traders, and from benefactors whose wealth was in part attributable to the slave trade. Records suggest that there were slaves on the construction team that built University Hall, where Simmons's office is located.
The committee has sought to learn from such models as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa. Simmons acknowledges the critical difference between the South African experience of aggressor and victim facing each other in catharsis and slavery, where all the principals are long dead. But few are better qualified than her to take the initiative of critically examining its past. Despite a happy childhood, she grew up amid the grinding poverty of a sharecropper existence. Her family moved from the cotton fields of Texas - where she was too young to pick cotton herself - to Houston. There her horizons were limited to her neighbourhood; it was dangerous for blacks to stray too far afield.
The principal emotion she recalls was of holding back - blacks did not push themselves forward in the South. That experience has given her the deepest empathy with the awkwardness that students from poor backgrounds feel when they first encounter self-confident middle-class students at college. She believes the setback is "only temporary" and can be overcome quickly. "You feel this way initially, but when you get into class it doesn't matter any more," she says.
Her escape was to enrol at a historically black university - Dillard in New Orleans, where she took her first degree. Dillard is still struggling to emerge from the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the event that brought home the fact that America in the 21st century is still a divided society.
Simmons, who taught French before going into university administration, is proud that she was present at this year's commencement at Dillard, but saddened by the destruction she saw still evident in the city. "In the middle of this destruction, here is a place that serves these disadvantaged kids, giving them access to education and the middle class," she says.
Brown is helping Dillard to pick up the pieces after Katrina. But Simmons is deeply aware of the young African-Americans - and Hispanics - who fail to escape. And she sees a direct connection between the refusal to address the legacy of slavery and the contemporary criminalisation of a host of young black males, caught up in a spiral of petty crime, incarceration and alienation.
"School and college seem irrelevant. They enter a life of continuous malfeasance. Some of us believe that building prisons is not the solution to our social problems," she says. "This pattern of criminalisation removes a number of young men from society and puts them on a track that separates them permanently from access to the middle class. There are data that tell us that if you educate an individual, the chances that they or their children will thereafter enter this track are minimal."
She points to the problem of high school dropouts as a big hurdle to overcome. "The failure of many Hispanics and African-Americans to finish high school is terrible. We thought we would have solved the problem by now, yet we've been unable to do so."
Part of the problem, she feels, is that the US is unaware that it is coping with social problems that are the legacy of slavery - decades of harming people's lives and the bar on African-Americans entering education. She says: "We cannot be responsible for what our predecessors did, but we can be held responsible for suppressing the truth of what they did. We can be held responsible for our failure to acknowledge the legacy of these actions, and for not having a society that is open and deals with this legacy."
She finds it "disappointing" that people in the US are afraid of learning about this history. "It is universities' job to discuss what has taken place in history. It is an important exercise in uncovering our past by way of a very civil discussion and discourse. I do not think anyone expects people to engage in self-flagellation, but a failure to tell the truth is criminal, especially when it deals with such an egregious practice as slavery."
For a university such as Brown, the questions she poses and their relevance to how the university operates are clear: is the school today founded along ethical lines? Does it have a clean record on human rights? Is it scrupulous about the investments it makes? Is it careful about the programmes it has established to educate students about civil and human rights?
Even before the committee reports, Simmons has set Brown on a course of social inclusiveness. New scholarship programmes target bright but impoverished students whose families have no access to borrowing to cover the cost of their education. She hopes to extend that principle globally.
Other universities in the US have followed Brown's example. At the University of North Carolina, material that recognises and documents the contributions of slaves, college servants and free persons of colour, mainly before the Civil War, has been collated. And in a 2000 project at Emory University in Georgia, students discovered that most of the university's early professors and officials had been slave owners. The 1836 decision to name the college after the recently deceased Methodist Bishop John T. Emory (a prominent slave owner) was due, in large measure, to his public opposition to abolition.
Other universities may also be looking with interest at the committee's report. The original benefactors of many of the US's top universities - Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Virginia - were slave owners or beneficiaries of the trade.
Moreover, at least two UK universities owe their foundation to wealth that may in part derive from industries dependent on the slave trade. Bristol University's Wills Memorial Building was a gift from the tobacco dynasty that made much of its money from US plantations, which depended on slavery until the Civil War and abolition in 1865.
And Sir Henry Tate, who founded Liverpool's University College in 1881, created his empire by acquiring a Merseyside company that flourished under slavery and the system of indentured labour that followed abolition. Both universities have strong academic programmes that examine the impact of slavery on their cities, but neither has approached the level of critical self-examination championed by Brown.
With the 200th anniversary of the ban on transportation of slaves approaching next year, events at Brown could have international repercussions.