Born in 1738, Moses Brown was the youngest of the five brothers born into the prominent Brown family. He became an abolitionist, and manumitted his slaves in 1773; he did this although other members of the Brown family were slave traders. He was also a merchant, working for his uncle Obadiah at Obadiah Brown & Co., later Nicholas Brown & Co. and run by Moses and his brothers Nicholas, John, and Joseph. Moses was also a reformer, serving as a deputy in the Rhode Island General Assembly from 1764 to 1771, and actively opposing the Stamp Act in 1765.
He joined the Society of Friends, or Quakers, in 1774 after the death of his first wife, Anna. Six years later, in 1780, Moses donated $575 to the Friends of New England for the establishment of a school (for both Quaker and non-Quaker children) in Rhode Island. He had a keen interest in the school from the start.
In 1784, the Friends’ Yearly Meeting School opened in Portsmouth, only to close after another four years due to low enrollment and budget concerns. More than thirty years would pass before the school’s reemergence. Still believing in the importance of an education built upon the ethical values of the Friends Society, in 1814 Brown donated forty-three acres of land in Providence for the reestablishment of the school. From 1819 to 1902 the school was known as the Friends’ Meeting School, before being renamed the Moses Brown School, in honor of its most important benefactor, in the 1920s.
Designed by renowned Providence architect John Holden Greene, the new school opened its doors on January 1, 1819. Initially, non-Quaker children paid higher tuition and had to agree to conform to specific standards before they could be admitted to the school. With an average yearly attendance of 125 over the first decade, the new iteration of the Friends’ School was considered an instant success. In 1822 Moses Brown’s only son, Obadiah passed away, and in his will he gifted a total of $100,000 for the building and furnishings, and an additional $650 worth of books and maps. The donation allowed the school to expand as its popularity increased.
During the first century of operation, boys and girls were accepted to the school. At the turn of the twentieth century, co-ed schools were becoming increasingly controversial, and in 1925 the Moses Brown School became a boys-only institution, sending female students to the nearby Lincoln School. Only in the 1970s did the school again admit female students. Today the school continues as an elite private Friends’ school on Providence’s east side.
In 2015 the Moses Brown School gained internet fame when Head of School Matt Glendinning parodied the hit Disney song, “Let it Go” on YouTube. His snow day announcement, “School is Closed” raked in over 4.1 million views and was featured on NBC’s Today Show.
Notable alumni of the school include Jesse Williams, political activist and actor on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, and Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, Jr., the 32nd and 34th Mayor of Providence.
Moses Brown died on September 6, 1836. He rests in the North Burial Ground’s Quaker cemetery, a parcel of land that Moses Brown formerly owned.