Grappling With Legacy: Rhode Island’s Brown Family and the American Philanthropic Impulse

Fourteen years ago, I was seated in a packed auditorium on Brown University’s campus for the inaugural event of the newly created University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice entitled “Unearthing the Past: Brown University, the Brown Family, and the Rhode Island Slave Trade.” One of the speakers came up to the podium and announced: “There were no good Browns.”

That felt like a punch in the stomach. First of all, I had no idea what she was talking about. I had grown up in a family steeped in public service. My grandfather had called himself a “professional philanthropist.” My father had spent 30 years in the US Navy and my uncle ran one of America’s foremost museums. Had I been fed a pack of lies? Was the fabled philanthropy of the Brown family simply a way to expiate a heinous crime? Most important, was I responsible for remedying the deeds of ancestors 250 years ago?

My quest took twelve years—my family’s papers happen to form the largest family business archive in America and I am not a trained historian. What started with research on one generation in the 18th century evolved into a much bigger story—the story of why Americans give so much to charity and why this trait forms such a crucial part of our national identity. By studying the evolution of one family over eleven generations, I was able to study the evolution of how Americans think about helping others. Most interestingly, I can now trace how children, grandchildren and beyond react to the decisions of previous generations.

Grappling With Legacy uses successive generations of the Brown family to illustrate charitable giving in the Colonial era, “redeemer benevolence” in the early 19th century, philanthropy in the Gilded Age, supporting the Arts in the 20th century, and impact investing today. I anchor the book around Nicholas Brown II (1769-1841), who poured his wealth into Brown University to provide young men with a moral compass in an era of economic dislocation, partisan politics, and growing social disparities, surprisingly akin to the present day. Last year, American institutions of higher learning received $41 billion because we believe that universities are agents of social change. Yet well before Andrew Carnegie encouraged successful businessmen to build “the ladders [universities and libraries] on which the aspiring can rise,” that concept was pioneered in the nation’s smallest state.

We are all grappling with our legacy—whether it’s your relationship with your parents or actions of ancestors 400 years ago. But what we hold in our DNA is only part of the equation; our choices today are what define us.

GRAPPLING WITH LEGACY: Rhode Island’s Brown Family and the American Philanthropic Impulse By Sylvia Brown
Archway Publishing, Simon and Schuster
Price: $43.95 hardcover, $28.99 paperback, $7.99 Kindle
Publication Date: November 2017
ISBN: 978-1-4808-4416-2 hard; 978-1-4808-4417-9 paper; 978-1-4808-6 electronic
To purchase or learn more, please visit

Eldest of the 11th generation of Browns in Rhode Island, Sylvia Brown (TPW 2006 – 2007)was attracted to development economics from an early age. Following her BS and MA degrees at the University of Pennsylvania, she pursued a professional career in various aspects of international development, from Wall Street to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Ten years ago, a course in strategic philanthropy redirected her focus to the nonprofit sector and eventually prompted a return to her Rhode Island roots. She has recently launched Uplifting Journeys, offering immersive donor education in locations around the world. Sylvia has two grown children. She and her husband Andrew West divide their time between Providence and London.

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