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Viewpoint: A Journey of Reconciliation

In April 2009, the William & Mary Board of Visitors passed a resolution to initiate a long-term research project “to better understand, chronicle and preserve the history of blacks at the College and in the community and to promote a deeper understanding of the indebtedness of the College to the work and support of its diverse neighbors.” The initiative was named “The Lemon Project,” honoring a slave named Lemon once owned by the College. Professor Robert Engs serves as the project’s consulting scholar. For more information, go to www.wm.edu/lemon.

The Lemon Project at William & Mary is not something brand new so much as it is a formalization of a number of scholarly and teaching efforts around the issues of slavery, race and community at the College. In the past several years, these topics have caused deep concern and reasons for reflection. For the first 170 years of its existence, William & Mary owned African-American slaves. For more than 100 years thereafter it engaged in the reprehensible practices of Jim Crow, denying admission to African-Americans as students while exploiting them as underpaid and disrespected employees.

By the first years of the 21st century, the College had corrected many of its ways, but its students, faculty, employees and the blacks in the community that they all shared wanted to do more. In the spirit first articulated abroad by “Truth and Reconciliation” commissions in South Africa, and further inspired by the thoughtful confrontation of Brown University with its origins in slavery and the slave trade, the College set out on a new path.

I was invited to the College in the fall of 2009 to bring together a number of exciting efforts exploring slavery, Jim Crow, integration and efforts toward College/community reconciliation. Much was underway, from the oral histories compiled by the students of Arthur Knight III, Robert F. and Sarah M. Boyd Term Distinguished Associate Professor of American Studies, to new theses and dissertations on the College and slavery from the history department, to class projects on the history of the College and its laborers overseen by Professor of History Cindy Hahamovitch, to individual and group projects in Africana studies, anthropology, English and the Omohundro Institute. And pushing it all forward was the energy and vision of Professor Terry Meyers in the English Department and the writings about the College’s problematic role in promoting pro-slavery ideology by Professor Alfred Brophy, currently at the University of North Carolina Law School.

My task was to try to weave together all these pieces into a united whole. With the support of President Taylor Reveley and Provost Michael Halleran, we asked the Board of Visitors to embrace these enterprises under the name of “The Lemon Project.” Lemon was an enigmatic bondsman at once owned by the College, but also an indepen-dent entrepreneur who sold grain to the College. He seemed to embody the many dimensions of the black/white interrelations that the College and community needed to explore, analyze and reflect upon together.

The provost has given unstinting support to the project. His appointment of Kimberley Phillips, associate professor of history and American studies, and Robert Vinson, assistant professor of history and Africana studies, as co-chairs of the Lemon Project Oversight Committee assures strong academic leadership for the future.

Professor Meyers continues to lead the way, documenting perhaps the first school for African-Americans (slave or free) in the English colonies here at William & Mary. Professor Jody Allen, Lemon Project coordinator, is teaching a seminar exploring the life of Henry Billups, another African-American with a complex association with the College and community — a man still remembered by many older alumni.

On March 19, the first College/Community Conference was held at the Bruton Heights Educational Center, presenting student research on slavery and college/community panels. The conference also featured a video documentary created by College freshman Arrianne Daniels titled “Their Eyes Were Watching Jim Crow.”

By the fall, we hope to have a website for the project fully in place and to produce the first of a series of publications of research work by faculty and students on Lemon Project themes that will be available online and in hard copy.

One of our foremost goals is to begin an Alumni Outreach Project, gathering the recollections of both black and white students from the tumultuous era of desegregation and gradual opening of the College to greater diversity.

With all manner of intellectual energy being expended on Lemon-related undertakings in the near future, the prospects for the Lemon Project and its contributions to the College’s understanding of itself are bright.

Robert F. Engs is professor of history emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania. A former Guggenheim and William Penn Fellow, he is an expert on the post–Civil War American South, particularly the responses of freed people and white Southerners to emancipation. He is the author of numerous publications, including Freedom’s First Generation: Black Hampton, Va. 1863-1890.