Telling Truth in All its Complexity

When I mentioned to an acquaintance in the southern U.S. state of Georgia that I shared some strands of DNA with a family of slaveowners there, he replied that I am “living proof of evolution to a higher state of being!” While that simple truth put a smile on my face, it also offers a glimmer of hope that more people in conflict-ridden, divided countries such as the U.S. can learn about and overcome the past to ensure a brighter and more harmonious future. A Vietnamese tradition inspires a genealogical journey, 21.2.22

As I mentioned in the essay from which the above quote was taken, most of my ancestors emigrated to British Colonial America in the 17th century, which later became the United States, starting as early as 1610 and 1620, which explains why my family history is also the good, bad, and ugly history of the U.S. I also stated that “For better and for worse, my extended family ties to the U.S. elite, of which I’m not a member except as someone who has benefited from WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) privilege, run deep and wide because so many ancestors on both parents’ sides emigrated to their New World nearly 400 years ago.”

Coat of arms of Brown University
Latin: Universitas Brunensis

This includes the Brown family of Rhode Island fame and slave trade infamy. Brown University‘s 2006 Slavery and Justice Report, which was updated in 2021, was inspired by the desire “‘to tell truth in all its complexity’ and to share that knowledge widely.” That’s a noble and practical goal that all nations should strive to achieve in the spirit of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, i.e., coming to terms with and overcoming the past.

It was Nicholas Brown, Sr. (1729-1791), a slave trader, his son Nicholas Brown, Jr. (1769-1841; class of 1786), John Brown (1736-1803), Joseph Brown (1733-1785), and Moses Brown (1738-1836) who together established what would become Brown University by donating land, constructing its first building, and securing an endowment. After Nicholas Sr. died, his son inherited his estate and donated a total of over $150,000. After a $5,000 donation in 1804, the school was renamed Brown University.

Nicholas Brown, Sr. is a paternal 3rd cousin seven times removed. We both descend from Obadiah Holmes and Katherine Hyde, early settlers and prominent Rhode Island Colony citizens. They are his 2nd great-grandparents and my ninth. Their most famous descendant is President Abraham Lincoln, who is a paternal 6th cousin four times removed.

Obadiah is a prominent example of what happens when the persecuted begin to persecute others whose faith doesn’t conform to theirs. This is a thread in US history that’s as relevant today as it was in 1651 when Holmes had a date with the whipping post in Boston and received 30 strokes. It’s said he could only sleep on his knees and elbows for weeks after his punishment.

Obadiah Holmes about to be whipped. Courtesy New York Public Library digital collections.

It’s interesting to note that Nicholas Brown, Sr. attempted a slave trading voyage in 1764 to fund his new iron foundry. The tragic voyage of the Sally is described in the Brown University report. Of the 196 enslaved persons on board, 109 died. That was Brown’s last attempt at slave trading. He saw to it that his son was mentored by George Benson (1752-1836), an abolitionist.

Like most families and the US to this day, the Browns were divided on the issue of slavery. Moses was an abolitionist. John was the first American to be tried under the Slave Trade Act of 1794. That law prohibited the use of any ship in the human trafficking. He was convicted and forced to forfeit his ship Hope. Nicholas Sr. mended his ways and made sure his son did not follow in his footsteps. Like the history of the country, the picture is not black and white but rather technicolor. This 2020 article My ancestors founded Brown University. Its connection to slavery isn’t what you’ve heard (5.7.20) offers some insights. I discuss these issues in more detail and in cross-cultural perspective in a 1-22 article entitled From New England to Vietnam: Settler Colonialism in Cross-Cultural Perspective.

Shalom (שלום), MAA

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