By Pam Belluck
The Washington Post
PROVIDENCE, R.I. - When Ruth J. Simmons became the president of Brown University nearly three years ago, one striking fact could not be overlooked.
A great-granddaughter of slaves, Dr. Simmons was the first African-American president of an Ivy League university. But the 240-year-old university she was chosen to lead had early links to slavery, with major benefactors and officers of it having owned and traded slaves.
"It certainly didn't escape me, my own past in relationship to that,'' Dr. Simmons said. "I sit here in my office beneath the portrait of people who lived at a different time and who saw the ownership of people in a different way. You can't sit in an office and face that every day unless you really want to know, unless you really want to understand this dichotomy.''
Now, Dr. Simmons, whose office is in a building constructed by laborers who included slaves, has directed Brown to start what its officials say is an unprecedented undertaking for a university: an exploration of reparations for slavery and specifically whether Brown should pay reparations or otherwise make amends for its past.
Dr. Simmons has appointed a Committee on Slavery and Justice, which will spend two years investigating Brown's historic ties to slavery; arrange seminars, courses and research projects examining the moral, legal and economic complexities of reparations and other means of redressing wrongs; and recommend whether and how the university should take responsibility for its connection to slavery.
Dr. Simmons, one of 12 children of an East Texas tenant farmer and a house cleaner, said she was motivated by a sense that the multifaceted subject of reparations had too often been reduced to simplistic and superficial squabbles.
``How does one repair a kind of social breach in human rights so that people are not just coming back to it periodically and demanding apologies,'' she said, ``so that society learns from it, acknowledges what has taken place and then moves on. What I'm trying to do, you see, in a country that wants to move on, I'm trying to understand as a descendant of slaves how to feel good about moving on.''
Dr. Simmons does not believe that her history will sway the inquiry's results. ``I don't think there can be a person with a better background for dealing with this issue than me,'' she said. ``If I have something to teach our students, if I have something to offer Brown, it's the fact that I am a descendant of slaves.''