No plans to follow Brown's reparations inquiry
Any veteran of an Orange Key tour can rattle off a few historical high points for the University. But one fellow Ivy League school has begun a formal process to delve more deeply into its ties to one historical phenomenon not usually covered on campus tours — the institution of slavery.
Brown University President Ruth Simmons — the university's first black president, a great-granddaughter of slaves and a former Princeton vice provost — has formed a committee to investigate whether the university owes some form of reparations to the descendants of slaves.
The Committee on Slavery and Justice, which consists of faculty, administration and members of the student body from camps both supporting and opposing reparations, was formed last summer and is scheduled to report its findings next year.
Brown's committee has sparked thought and debate among some students and faculty at Princeton as to whether such an investigation should be undertaken here and, if so, what exactly should be discussed.
But, as of now, the University administration does not plan to follow Brown's lead.
"At this time we have no plans for forming a similar committee at Princeton," President Tilghman said in an email.
Several students and professors on campus strongly believe the University's past deserves a good, hard look.
"I firmly support some form of reparation for the legacy of injustices initiated by and through the Peculiar Institution," said James Peterson of the Program in African-American Studies in an email, "Universities are fertile ground for intellectual exploration of this serious historical issue."
He said University resources should be used to analyze the benefits received by corporations and the government from the toils of slavery.
Others suggested the process of exploration would be beneficial in itself.
"Whether or not such investigation produced a material outcome, its intellectual payoff would make an enormous intellectual contribution to our history," Nell Irvin Painter, professor of American history, said in an email. "Simply uncovering the silences and forgetting would teach us a great deal."
One University student group, the Princeton Justice Project, has been discussing the issue of reparations through its Reconciliation Committee.
"Only from a thorough evaluation should recommendations for possible reparations be made," said Stephanie Mash '04, co-founder and past captain of the committee.
Last year the group held a conference on the legacy of slavery and the reparations movement.
"I personally believe that it would be a huge disservice to the people of African descent on this campus and those in the greater Princeton community if the University does not seriously evaluate the history of the slavery relevant to this campus," Mash said.
Princeton and slavery
Some campus community members believe reparations would be unnecessary at Princeton.
"[Brown] was founded in substantial part from Mr. [John] Brown's profits that he derived from the slave trade — slaves helped to build the very building in which President Simmons has her office," said Bill Potter '68, the founder of and faculty advisor to the Princeton Justice Project, in an email.
"The issue for Brown was that slave labor was used to build some of the structures on campus and that one of the founders of Brown derived his wealth from the unpaid labor of those who were enslaved," Noliwe Rooks, associate director of Princeton's Program in African-American Studies, said in an email. "I don't know that the same can be said for Princeton and, therefore, don't know that you have the same issues at work."
Nevertheless, several said it is precisely because Princeton lacked blatant ties to the slave trade that the University should undergo self-investigation.
"Princeton's decision to set up such a commission would be an act of moral discretion that can instruct others to consider following suit in the interest of racial understanding and reconciliation," Potter said, adding that it would "set a great example for the rest of the Ivy League."
"Though Princeton's past isn't as blatantly tied to slavery as Brown's, it couldn't hurt and it would be nice to know that our University cares," Leslie-Bernard Joseph '06, president of the Black Student Union, said in an email.
But much of Princeton's historical connection to slavery remains murky.
Potter pointed to rumors that President Witherspoon was a slaveholder who bequeathed his slaves to Princeton.
"I have also read that Princeton at the time of the American Revolution . . . had the largest population of freed slaves, other than Philadelphia, in the colonies because so many Princeton students had brought their slaves with them, were then exposed to these ideas of equality, and had then freed 'their' slaves," Potter said. "Princeton may well have strong ties, both negative and positive, to slavery."
Potter suggested some topics for a committee to examine: if and for what purpose Princeton used slavery, how it was justified and how students used slaves. Also, the commission should carefully analyze race relations in the post-civil war 'Jim Crow' era such as policies for admissions, dorm room assignment and University hiring. Finally, it should examine the University's relationship to the civil rights movement and the evolution of affirmative action policies, he said.
"This discussion has been garnering national attention for several years now," Peterson said. " In order to avoid Princeton's typical 'johnnie-come-lately' status regarding issues of race, it would seem prudent to at least explore the discussion."
Despite support for such a commission, others assert that reparations are simply not feasible.
"Many African-Americans are not descendants of American slaves," Anthony Appiah, a philosophy professor, said in an email. "Some of those that are, are descendants of slaveholders as well and it's hard to say what the current value of what was not paid should be, even if we could calculate what should have been paid."
Though slave compensation should have been given at the time of emancipation, it is now too complicated to carry out reparations in any logical manner, he said.
"To the extent that a reparations debate focuses on past wrongs it distracts from current racial injustice," Appiah said.
Even proponents of an investigation into the University's past admit that the issues at hand are extremely complicated.
"Whether such a commission should also address other issues of Princeton and discrimination — e.g., against Hispanics, Jews, women, the handicapped, the disabled, etc. — is also an important question to consider," Potter said.
"Considering Woodrow Wilson's legacy at this school, I'd be pleasantly surprised to find Princeton create a 'Committee on Slavery and Justice,'" Joseph said. But, he added, "I don't think Princeton is that progressive yet."
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