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Prof. Meyers studies the role of slaves in the College's past

Professor says that College must confront its participation in slavery

According to English professor Terry Meyers, the College has a lot of explaining to do about its associations with slavery. In an upcoming article for the William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal, titled “A First Look at the Worst,” Meyers says that the College used slave labor to construct the President’s House, the Brafferton and the Wren Building. It also bought slaves with money from the state legislature. These slaves worked on plantations, Meyers argues, to fund scholarships for young men who were economically barred from coming to the institution.

Nor was it a rarity for the College to rent or auction off its slaves.

And, in light of Virginia’s apology for slavery, as well as that of the University of Virginia, many — including Meyers — are wondering if the College should at least recognize its past.

“Knowing the full history of things is important. I’m not calling for an apology, myself — certainly, not at this stage,” Meyers said. “I think that an apology will come naturally and inevitably once people understand what the history of the institution is … I don’t think an apology has any depth or resonance until it’s accompanied by a kind of self-examination.”

Meyers instead stressed the importance that the College recognize its past, rather than offer an apology.

“I think, in a way, that the state and the University of Virginia took the easy way out,” Meyers said. “If they really documented what the state’s official involvement with slavery was or what the University of Virginia’s actual involvement with slavery was, I think their expressions of regret would have had greater force. William and Mary has an opportunity to sort of do things the right way and begin to discover what its past is and then examine its conscience.”

The College had a strong influence on slavery in the South during the pre-Civil War era. Thomas Roderick Dew, the College’s president in 1836, was a nationally recognized economist at the time, often using his position to spread his views about slavery.

Dew published a work entitled “Review of the debate in the Virginia legislature of 1831 and 1832,” which, according to a University of Alabama law professor, was a “leading proslavery work” in the antebellum era. In the review, Pew asserted that attempts at abolition would lead only to violence, because “power can never be dislodged from the hands of the intelligent, the wealthy and the courageous, by any plans that can be formed by the poor, the ignorant and the habitually subservient.” Dew also claimed that slavery was not only beneficial for economy, but also for the slaves themselves. Pew argued that “a merrier being does not exist on the face of the globe, than the negro slave of the U. States.”

In Meyers’ report, he also mentions that the Ku Klux Klan gave the College an “ornate flag pole and brickwork” in 1926. This pole, for a time, remained at the corner of Boundary Street and Jamestown Road.

Despite its heavy involvement with slavery, the College has also shown a commitment toward civil equality.

Former President of the College John Stewart Bryan spoke out against wage discrimination amongst the black staff during his tenure. Twelve students and a member of the faculty walked out of a lecture that Strom Thurmond, the segregationist presidential candidate, gave in 1948. The Flat Hat also has a history of supporting civil right issues on campus. The newspaper satirized the Ku Klux Klan in the May 20, 1940 issue and opposed a poll tax that prevented blacks from voting in a column on November 5, 1940. One Flat Hat writer, Jerry Hyman, spoke out against racial prejudice and inequality in a May 3, 1944 issue. As of late, the College itself has worked hard to increase diversity on campus and create a welcoming environment for minority students.

Considering the College’s commitment to racial progress, many, including Virginia Gazette columnist Lew Leadbeater, oppose the College issuing an apology for slavery.

In a Dec. 8, 2007, column in the Virginia Gazette, Leadbeater argued that focusing on the past does very little for the present.
“While I suppose that apologies for events in the distant past make people feel better or satisfy some inexplicable need for a cosmic justice that transcends time, they generally aren’t worth the paper they’re written on or the time it takes to utter them,” Leadbeater wrote. “Students who are clamoring for apologies … should rather be taking a closer look at what the college has done and is doing to rectify past injustices.”

For Prof. Meyers' original article, see 

Meyers, Terry L. , "A First Look at the Worst/Slavery and Race Relations at the College of William and Mary" . William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, Forthcoming Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1068921