Local Treasure: John Brown House Museum
John Quincy Adams once declared it “the most magnificent and elegant private mansion that I have ever seen on this continent.” Even by today’s standards, the John Brown House is impressive: a three-floor Georgian estate anchoring the southern end of Providence’s historic College Hill neighborhood. The tourists who gather for a glimpse of its opulent interior are guided first into a back room that looks surprisingly modern. The guide explains that this used to be the kitchen. “Now we’ve transformed it into a space for exhibits,” he says. Then, gesturing toward a row of placards on the wall, “And now we have up a very sad and powerful exhibit on the slave trade.” A small ripple of awkward surprise passes through the group as everyone realizes that this is one of those museums.
Having an honest conversation about slavery can be like forcing children to eat their broccoli–especially in New England, where we prefer to skip ahead to the Amistad and the Underground Railroad. We’d rather celebrate our heroes than parse their ethics, but that doesn’t change the fact that before it was a hotbed of abolition, New England was one of the corners of the triangle trade. Sixty percent of all slave ships to leave the American colonies sailed from Rhode Island cities, primarily Newport, Bristol, and Providence.
The Browns weren’t the largest slave-trading family in Rhode Island, but they may be the most famous. The business pursuits of the four Brown brothers (a fifth brother had died at age 26) were instrumental in transforming Providence into a thriving city, and their name still graces its Ivy League university. The exhibit describes the brothers’ second venture into the slave trade, in 1764, a badly bungled affair in which more than half of the enslaved Africans died before reaching the West Indies. The experience affected the brothers in profoundly different ways. Moses, the youngest, became a Quaker abolitionist, renounced the slave trade, and lobbied successfully for a federal law banning the building and equipping of slave ships in U.S. ports. John, in whose home the exhibit resides, became a vocal defender of the trade and was the first person prosecuted under his brother’s law. (He was acquitted, but was forced to forfeit his ship.)
The exhibit is only a small portion of the museum. The rest of the tour deals with other aspects of John Brown’s life: He was a patriot in the Revolution and a pioneer in the China trade. The exhibit has been criticized at times for going too far and for not going far enough, but that may just mean that it has struck the right balance. It certainly does enough to get people to think. As the tour group passes through the home’s pristine period rooms, the normal oohing-and-ahhing over the mahogany desks and silver place settings is muted somewhat, as visitors are left to question how they were paid for.
Find additional information on slavery and African American history in New England.