Current Events and Philanthropy / Oral History/Testimonies / Philanthropy

Grappling with Legacy – The Pursuit of Effective Philanthropy with Ancestral Skeletons in the Closet

Editors’ Note: Sylvia Brown chronicles her experience grappling with the relationship between the legacy of the Brown Family and her own commitment to philanthropy.

In 1989 my father sold his most valuable possession, a Colonial-era bookcase-on-desk, to pay for the restoration of our family home in Providence, Rhode Island. The desk fetched $12.1 million at auction – a world record. Six years later, the renovation finally complete, he presented the historic house, along with furniture, family archives and an endowment, to Brown University. My father, Nicholas Brown, viewed this gift as no more than a continuation of a family philanthropic tradition begun in 1770 when his ancestors brought The College of Rhode Island to Providence. Years later, in 1804, the College was renamed Brown University to honor another gift, one of many made over 250 years by seven generations of the Brown family.

I never questioned my father’s decision to give away his children’s inheritance to the university, and proudly believed philanthropy had come to define my family. Indeed, my grandfather, John Nicholas Brown, famous for saving historic buildings around the world, for his exploits as a World War II “Monuments Man,” and for launching the urban preservation movement, believed art and culture could transform the human experience. He called himself a “professional philanthropist.” His three children pursued careers in public service – my father in the U.S. Navy, then as director of several nonprofits; my uncle, J. Carter Brown, as director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington; and my aunt through a lifetime of board service.

Yet, less than a decade after my father’s grand gesture, a speaker took to the stage at the first public event of Brown University’s newly formed “Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice” and announced, “There were no good Browns.”

I was dumbfounded.

Then wondered if I had been fed a pack of lies – was this family tradition of philanthropy in fact atonement for the actions of generations 300 years earlier? I knew few details about the Brown story as my parents wanted us to have a “normal” upbringing, especially while my father was a serving naval officer. So I spent the next 12 years researching the actions of my ancestors, culminating in the publication of Grappling With Legacy – Rhode Island’s Brown Family and the American Philanthropic Impulse in 2017. This exercise has given me insights into the thorny issue of legacy and cross-generational responsibility when there are “skeletons in the closet.” Though relatively few Americans must contend with events that occurred in their families over 300 years ago, the descendants of today’s philanthropists may face similar dilemmas in years to come.

The disconnect between charitable giving and the origins of the wealth that make it possible has been debated for centuries – from the 16th century schools in England funded by the dissolution of the monasteries to the Robber Barons who became the great philanthropists of the Gilded Age. The debate continues, most recently when Jeff Bezos announced his charitable plans, or in books such as Anand Giridharadas’s Winners Take All.

When Brown President Ruth Simmons, the first African-American president of an Ivy League institution, appointed the steering committee in 2003, she hoped it “might help the nation and the Brown community think deeply, seriously and rigorously about the issues raised in the emerging debate over slavery and reparations.” Since our vast family archive is all on campus or nearby, it was easy for the committee — and soon the media — to focus intensely on the activities of the Brown family in the 18th century (40 years before the College of Rhode Island was renamed Brown University) as representative of successful merchants in an Atlantic economy fueled by the slave trade. In its final 2006 report, the steering committee did warn, “there is an obvious risk of distortion in focusing on a single family, especially when discussing an institution as pervasive as slavery, but the history of the University is so densely interwoven with the life of this extraordinary family that it is impossible to discuss one without the other.” And the New York Times did try to strike a balanced tone in an October 2006 editorial, noting “Brown [University] did indeed benefit in its early years from money generated by the slave trade and by industries dependent on slavery. It did so in an era when slavery permeated the social and economic life of Rhode Island.” But the damage was done; the Brown family became the poster child for the evils of the slave trade.

Unfortunately, the steering committee’s report mentioned nothing about the six generations of Browns that followed the “notorious” generation about which it devoted almost half its pages. And it did not mention that much of the great wealth which underpinned our large gifts to the university in the 19th and 20th centuries came from textile mills employing child labor (another Rhode Island specialty).

Let me clarify a few points:

  • The College of Rhode Island was founded with donations from Baptists down the Eastern Seaboard, so yes, those funds probably were all directly or indirectly tainted by the slave trade. Rhode Island was the colony that most invested in slaving voyages (700 families undertook over 900 voyages, and after trading was outlawed, illegal voyages by Rhode Islanders continued well into the 19th century).
  • My direct ancestors owned slaves. In the 18th century, they invested in three disastrous voyages, finally forswearing the slave trade in 1765.
  • However, the man who gave Brown University its name in the 19th century, Nicholas Brown, was an abolitionist and committed supporter of freed blacks, as were his son and grandson.
  • My grandfather, who served as assistant secretary of the Navy in the Truman administration, was instrumental in desegregating the U.S. Navy. And when the first African-American officer was promoted to admiral, my father was his executive officer.

Nothing can erase the past; it should be studied to understand the long-term consequences of injustice and to effect positive change in the present. We should remind ourselves an estimated 40.3 million people are victims of modern slavery across the world today. Human trafficking (primarily sexual bondage) is a growing problem in Rhode Island and New England, soon to outpace the drug trade. But judging the past through 21st century eyes, declaring “the Browns were bad people” or asking me if “I feel bad about my ancestors” serves little purpose because values evolve so fundamentally. Indeed, my book shows how the Brown family’s view of “doing good” evolved over 11 generations alongside America’s changing attitudes toward giving. Studying the Brown family papers to explore the roots of today’s race-based social issues is constructive and useful.

But where does the sense of guilt end? Despite the Judeo-Christian belief in atonement, I do not consider it useful or even possible for individuals to expiate mistakes made by their forefathers. Truth and reconciliation commissions have provided cathartic healing when the initiative was conducted by institutions or governments (though I question the ultimate impact of the steering committee’s recommendations which ranged from commissioning a sculpture to setting up another research center). But personal guilt is not a good driver of philanthropy. Thoughtful and effective giving should be proactive and based on evidence. Emotions play an important role in philanthropy when channeled into a passion for solving problems. However, giving to assuage guilt may provide a “warm glow” but rarely results in maximizing social impact if donors’ primary concern is about how a gift will make them feel.

Well before Brown University’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice was launched, I was involved in fighting human trafficking and modern-day slavery. In fact, I happened to be in Nepal visiting an NGO working to halt the kidnapping of Nepalese children for Indian circuses on the day the committee published its report. My research on historical slavery has informed and enriched my endeavors in this issue area – not a desire to atone. Similarly, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund was careful to note when it began divesting from fossil fuels that this mission-aligned initiative was part of its commitment to combat climate change – not born out of a sense of guilt about the fund’s origins with Standard Oil.

Some of the descendants of today’s philanthropists inevitably will feel uneasy about the origins of their family’s wealth. My advice is as follows: Part of our legacy is what we have in our DNA, but the other, vital part is what we choose to do with the values and examples that our families have instilled in us. In my case, writing a book was therapeutic because it allowed me to correct misrepresentations and establish accurate facts – warts and all. But my legacy will be my actions and what I do to leave a positive mark on the world. Once we have learned about the past, we cannot allow ourselves to be haunted by it or we never will have the energy to work for a better future. We have an obligation to make the biggest possible difference today. Every family is made up of stories it can be proud of, and stories it feels shame about. We all have skeletons in our family closets – I just happen to know what mine are.

-Sylvia Brown

Sylvia Brown is an Encore Public Voices Fellow at the OpEd Project and the author of Grappling With Legacy: Rhode Island’s Brown Family and the American Philanthropic Impulse. Following a 30-year career in international development, she founded Uplifting Journeys, Bootcamps for Smarter Donors, and now is developing a virtual version of her experiential curriculum to promote thoughtful and effective giving practices for all donors, not just those of ultra-high net worth.


4 thoughts on “Grappling with Legacy – The Pursuit of Effective Philanthropy with Ancestral Skeletons in the Closet

  1. I’m surprised and disappointed to see this perspective featured on HistPhil. I’ve read Sylvia Brown’s writing before, much of which is repeated in this piece. She has indeed done her homework on her family’s history, including how her ancestors both benefited from and later opposed slave labor. Yes, it is “constructive and useful” to “explore the roots of today’s race-based social issues.” But I hear white guilt coming through loud and clear – she even asks, “where does the sense of guilt end?” – and I don’t see a true reckoning with our country’s past here.

    I utterly disagree with Sylvia’s conclusion that “judging the past through 21st century eyes…serves little purpose because values evolve so fundamentally.” Also, on her blog (, Sylvia has asserted that because slavery was a systemic issue, we shouldn’t hold individuals or individual families accountable for their “evil” actions.

    Yet our country’s history of extraction and oppression is still alive and well in our culture, policies, and systems. This isn’t about “moral failings,” but genocide and white supremacy.

    While human trafficking and modern-day slavery are indeed serious human rights issues, to have researched the past so deeply yet turn away from calls for reparations at home, from opportunities to support descendants of Native and Black people that white people so deeply wronged to build the US of today, feels like some twisted escapism from a true reckoning of our racial history and what it means to return what was inhumanely and unjustly taken.

    The Black Lives Matter policy platform ( is a great resource to learn what the repairing of relationships and systemic inequities can look like in practice — importantly, when led by the most marginalized people and communities, not by people like me and Sylvia.

    If she hasn’t already, I hope Sylia and others who identify like us plug into anti-racism networks such as Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), which has resources such as this ( on the different levels of racism: interpersonal, institutional, and structural. The Undoing Racism workshop offered by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB) was also an integral learning experience for me about the history of race and racism in the US and connections to today.


  2. Either I did not express myself properly or you are not reading my message… We both agree: action is needed, not endless finger pointing and name blaming. I want to move beyond dwelling on the past because so much needs to be done TODAY. Where we disagree – holding individual families accountable for “evil actions” – is, in my case, for reasons of practicality. I happen to be half French Huguenot. My ancestors were enslaved by the King, the men forced to row on his galleys until death by exhaustion, the women locked up for life (one of my ancestors etched the words “resist” with her finger nail on the stone of her cell). The lucky ones who escaped became refugees for 200 years. So should I be spending my energy railing against the Catholic Church? Or descendants of French aristocrats? I see from your name that you probably have Irish origins. Do you think you deserve reparations from the English? Who is the greater “victim”? Where does it end?
    And thanks for the very useful links on racism.


  3. Hi Sylvia. Thanks for your reply. The family history you’ve identified is fascinating. That said, we’re not talking about France or Ireland. We’re talking about the United States and 250 years of slavery, an economic system that built TODAY as we know it. White guilt will end at different places for different people. For some it may never end or even be acknowledged because whiteness is so invisible to us — it’s status quo. But to answer your question, it can end with an apology in the form of reparations to descendants of the Native and Black people our country has systematically oppressed and stolen resources from. One of my white friends is set to inherit land from her family that historically belonged to a local Native tribe, and she plans to return it to them. That’s a big part of her reparations. My family doesn’t own assets like that, but I’m looking forward to learning more about how my ancestors benefitted from white supremacy culture. In the meantime, I support and give money to Black activists who redistribute funds to low-income Black women and femmes, a local social justice fund that gives micro grants to people of color-led social justice work, and friends of color who are organizing to combat Islamophobia and sexual harassment in DC. In addition, I do my own learning about whiteness to unlearn harmful behaviors like taking up too much speaking time in mixed race social justice spaces. I’m currently reading “White Frigility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism” by Robin DiAngelo. Those are my reparations. The Black Lives Matter framework has great larger scale policy recommendations for reparations in the United States. What are yours?


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