After more than 10 years of deliberation and planning, the College of William and Mary is finalizing a memorial to the people enslaved by the school between the 17th and mid-19th centuries. The school has been open for 324 years, and it practiced institutionalized slavery for 172 years — more than 50 percent of the time its doors have been open to students.
The memorial has been in the works by the members of the Lemon Project for many years. An investigation into William and Mary’s slaveholding past that is itself named for a man once enslaved by the college, The Lemon Project is, according to William and Mary’s website, a “multifaceted and dynamic attempt to rectify wrongs perpetrated against African Americans by the College through action or inaction.” It works to foster connections between William & Mary and the Greater Tidewater area.
The move to install a memorial has been a goal of the Lemon Project Committee since 2009, when the Board of Visitors passed the resolution to start the Lemon Project on campus.
RVA Mag talked with Professor Jody Allen, the Lemon Project’s Director, about the expected effect of the memorial, and future goals for the project. Currently, there is a competition for memorial ideas among students at the school. Students send in design ideas, and the Lemon Project Committee on Memorialization will choose the three best designs. Those then go to President Katherine Rowe, William & Mary’s current president, and she will choose which design to present to the Board of Visitors.
Rather than a member of the Lemon Project Committee designing the memorial, the committee decided it was a better idea to keep the submissions open to the public.
“We want to leave it open, because when you bring someone in from the outside, sometimes they see a place differently than you do,” said Allen.
When the school was first chartered in the late 17th century, the university was made up of just one building: the Christopher Wren Building. At its beginning, the school was for Native Americans and white settlers, then later segregated because the white students no longer wanted to share the space. The white students (who at the time were all-male) brought their personal slaves to campus to live in the dorms. Eventually, the school itself had enslaved people working on the campus.
Since its charter, William & Mary has expanded the campus to 1200 acres, with a population of about 6000 undergraduates. Historic Campus, where the Wren Building is located, is where the Lemon Project Committee wants the memorial to be installed.
“We definitely think it needs to be on or adjacent to historic campus, because that’s where the enslaved people lived and worked,” said Allen. “And so that’s where we need to remember them.”
“For so long, people really didn’t stop and think about how old this school is, and that it probably did have enslaved people,” Allen said. “It’s certainly been in the archive, but it hasn’t been part of the public story.”
The public story of William & Mary, like other colonial-era schools, is focused on how the university has stood the test of time. The novelty of the school is its age, its role in the founding of this country (located only eight miles from Jamestown), and by proxy, the important historical figures — mostly white men — who are linked to the university.
William & Mary is moving towards recognizing its role in colonization and slavery. The campus historic tours, led by the Spotswood Society (a group of student historians on campus who run tours and manage the Wren Building), are starting to include more information on the roles and lives of enslaved people and Native Americans on campus during that time. Spotswood Society member Marriya Schwarz, didn’t realize the extent of those groups’ roles in William & Mary’s history until she joined the society.
“When I was researching slavery on campus, I realized William & Mary had slaves for longer than they haven’t,” Schwarz said. Spotswood Society tour guides are given the information, research, and training necessary to give historic tours, but they have a good amount of freedom in what they decide to include.
“I think it’s encouraged that we talk about it, but it’s kind of up to the tour guide,” said Schwarz. “And most people think it’s very important.”
The memorial will be a physical reminder to the student body, Colonial Williamsburg tourists, and members of the Williamsburg City community that the area was built up with slave labor. Professor Allen has high hopes for the intended effect the memorial will have on the community.
“Of course we hope it has a wonderful effect,” Allen said. “I mean, we want it to be — for lack of a better term — a living memorial. Not something that’s just put up, people go to the dedication, and they really stop thinking about it. It just becomes part of the scene that you walk by but you don’t really pay attention to.”
Other ways Professor Allen said the college will help William & Mary recognize its past will take place in the classroom. She hopes that the extensive research conducted by the Lemon Project will be used by other professors at William & Mary, and elsewhere throughout their courses.
“I would love to see a general campus tour that focuses on African-American significant sites in terms of the history of the school,” Allen added.
The Lemon Project hopes the memorial will engage the community and strengthen the relationship between the school and the City of Williamsburg. And establishing the memorial won’t mean the end of the Lemon Project. “We certainly have ongoing research, so we can keep on filling out that picture of the black experience at William and Mary over these last 325 years or so,” Allen added. “Our archival research will continue.”
The chosen design creator will be awarded $1000. President Rowe and the Board of Visitors will decide which design to use at their meeting in February 2019.
Image: College of William and Mary, circa 1860-1920. Photo by Huestis P. Cook, via New York Public Library