This Day in Jewish History / An Early Donation for Brown University

In 1770, Moses Lindo, a successful Jewish dye expert, donated to the new institution which had pledged access to all students, regardless of religious affiliation.

On April 17, 1770, South Carolina farmer and trader Moses Lindo wrote to the College of Rhode Island offering his financial support. The willingness of the English-born Lindo to make a donation to a school in another colony, one that he himself had not attended, was based, he said, on the college’s stated policy of admitting students without regard to their religious background.

Lindo, born in 1712, arrived in North America from London in 1756. He was already recognized as an expert in the trade of indigo dye when he settled in Charleston, where he became a producer of the indigo plant (and slave-owner) as well as a major trader in what became one of the colony’s most important crops. After 48 of his fellow citizens, all of them Christians, petitioned the governor of South Carolina colony on his behalf, Lindo was appointed the “Surveyor and Inspector-General of Indigo, Drugs, and Dyes," in 1762. He held that position until 1772.

Rhode Island College received a charter from King George II in 1764. (Its named was changed to Brown University in 1804.) In keeping with the spirit of Rhode Island Colony, from the beginning, the college had a policy of being a “liberal and catholic institution” that would never subject candidates for admission to “any religious tests, but on the contrary, all the members hereof shall forever enjoy full, free, absolute, and uninterrupted liberty of conscience." 

In 1770, Rev. Hezekiah Smith, a Baptist minister, traveled in South Carolina and Georgia soliciting funds for the new college, which that same year took up residence in Providence, Rhode Island. Moses Lindo was one prospective donor he met with. Lindo had studied at the Merchant Taylors School in London, but as a Jew, had not been permitted to formally enroll. Presumably remembering that insult, Lindo offered to pledge 20 pounds to Rhode Island College.

The archives of Brown University provide the following record, from September 6, 1770, of its transaction with Lindo:

“The sum of twenty pounds having been reported as a subscription from Mr. Moses Lindo… it was thereupon ‘Voted, That the children of Jews may be admitted into this Institution, and entirely enjoy the freedom of their own religion without any restraint or imposition whatever. And that the Chancellor and President do write to Mr. Moses Lindo of Charleston, South Carolina, and give him information of this resolution.’"

Apparently, the trustees of the college had reasons to hope that Lindo’s generosity would exceed that original gift, as he had written explaining that if their admissions policy was indeed as he had been informed, “my donation shall exceed beyond the bounds of th’ir imagination.”

There is no evidence that Lindo bestowed an additional gift on Rhode Island College. Nor is there evidence that the college had a Jewish student before 1894, when one Israel Strauss entered the freshman class at Brown.

In 1928, Dean Otis E. Randall informed a new Jewish fraternity that it could not operate on campus, as “we do not want at Brown any fraternity organized on the basis of race or religion.” This was in spite of the fact that the existing fraternities at the school refused to accept Jewish students. Only after protests from Jewish organizations did the trustees of Brown overrule the dean, and the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity was permitted to have a branch at the university.

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