Approximately 100 people gathered at the Bruton Heights School on March 19 to share knowledge, research findings and personal experiences during the Lemon Project’s Spring Symposium.
“This will be a day of learning from each other,” said Jody Allen, Ph.D. ‘07, Lemon Project coordinator and adjunct assistant professor of history, as she opened the event Saturday morning.
The symposium, titled “From Slavery Toward Reconciliation: African Americans & The College,” aimed to explore the College’s relationship with the local African-American community, from the time of slavery through the civil rights era and today. Faculty, staff, students, alumni and community members participated in the event.
President Taylor Reveley recapped the history of the Lemon Project, which was launched in 2009 when the Board of Visitors adopted a resolution to acknowledge the College’s ownership and exploitation of slaves and its discriminatory practices during the Jim Crow era.
“It’s important that we didn’t stop there,” said Reveley.
“Words alone aren’t enough. It’s crucial that the College go beyond rhetoric,” he said, adding that the symposium was an important step in that pursuit.
Though the project is still “early in its gestation,” Reveley said, “I do feel like the College is moving in a productive direction.”
Examining the past
The symposium began with a panel that looked back at the history of race relations at William & Mary and in Williamsburg. The panel members included Williamsburg community member Edith Heard, William & Mary student Andrew Ojeda ‘12 and Amy Schindler, university archivist and acting Marian and Alan McLeod Director of the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC). Kim Phillips, Lemon initiatives co-chair and Frances L. and Edwin L. Cummings Associate Professor of History and American Studies, served as the panel’s moderator.
Phillips said that one of the goals of the Lemon Project is to bring together different groups of people.
“We can’t do this alone as faculty,” said Phillips, adding that students and community members are vital to the process.
Schindler discussed the wide range of historical resources that are available in the SCRC, and Heard discussed growing up in a now defunct area of housing for Colonial Williamsburg employees in the middle of the 20th century.
“Williamsburg was one of the most integrated places in the 1940s,” said Heard, who participated in the Williamsburg Documentary Project. “It is more segregated now.”
Ojeda, an American Studies major, talked about his current research and his involvement in the Lemon Project.
"I’m excited to be a member of the Lemon Project because I have been presented with an opportunity to study racial hybridity, an area of great interest to me, within the project, while simultaneously contributing positively to the William and Mary community and beyond," Ojeda said. "In conducting and discussing my research, I hope to educate the public about an emerging demographic that represents the future of race relations in American society."
The morning panel also gave audience members a chance to talk a little about their own experiences and concerns. Several alumni spoke about the struggles they faced when they came to the College in the early 1970s, and some current students discussed their research interests as well as their concerns about the lack of local students of color who are encouraged to attend William & Mary.
Current students also led the two panels that followed the morning session, discussing research they had conducted on how history is presented at regional historical sites.
“It’s like a big elephant in the room,” said Christina Benjamin ’12, who reported on a complete lack of references to slavery during a tour of one such location.
Anthony Myers ’12 said that, when asked why slavery was not discussed, the tour guide said visitors did not want to hear about it.
“History may not only be written by the winners, but it may also be shaped by the receptive ears of listeners,” Myers noted.
The student panels were followed by a presentation on the Desegregation of Virginia Education (DOVE) Project, given by Bea Hardy, interim dean of Swem Library and co-founder and chair of the Tidewater chapter of DOVE. The DOVE Project is an effort to find and preserve records relating to Virginia’s desegregation of schools.
The present and future
Following a lunch, during which many of the discussions begun in the morning continued, Arianne Daniels ’14 presented a documentary she created during her senior year of high school. In “Their Eyes Were Watching Jim Crow,” several local residents discuss their memories of Williamsburg during the time of desegregation.
Following the film, one final panel discussed the road ahead. The panelists included Daniels, Williamsburg community member Barbara Watson and Robert Vinson, Lemon initiatives co-chair and associate professor of history at William & Mary. The panel was moderated by Robert Engs, emeritus professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and visiting distinguished professor of history at William & Mary.
“What we’ve had today is what the Lemon Project is about,” said Engs, noting the collaboration among faculty, students and community members.
Watson, who works with “All Together,” a Williamsburg group that seeks to bring people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds together to foster unity, echoed Engs’ sentiment, saying, it’s all about creating and maintaining relationships among people.
Vinson noted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that followed the end of apartheid in South Africa, saying that an acknowledgement of truth is an important part of moving forward.
“We can’t have reconciliation without this happening today,” Vinson said.
Tony Conyers, a local resident who appeared in Daniels’ film, agreed that a shared understanding of the past is necessary before moving forward.
“All of us have to ‘fess up to our history before we move forward,” he said.
“This moment can be the moment of significant beginnings,” said Whitley, later adding that attendees should be “visible and vocal” to continue progress.
Meyers, who has written on race relations and slavery at William & Mary, said he was “very heartened” by the symposium, but that there were still actions he’d like to see taken. Even just a few years ago, he noted, the College had difficulty discussing its own history with slavery. The work of the Lemon Project, however, represents progress, he added.
Following the event, Allen said she was pleased with how the day went.
"According to written and verbal feedback, the symposium was a success because it brought students, faculty, staff, and community members together to begin a dialogue about race and that is the first step toward true reconciliation," she said.