The 2014 Lemon Project Spring Symposium this weekend took an unflinching look at the history of slavery and the African-American experience at America’s oldest institutions of higher education.
The two-day event, held Friday and Saturday at William & Mary and Bruton Heights School in Williamsburg, featured a book discussion and keynote presentation by Craig Steven Wilder, the author of Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. The fourth-annual symposium, attended by more than 150 people, also included an open mic night and several panel discussions in which professors and students from both William & Mary and other universities participated.
The Lemon Project was established by the William & Mary Board of Visitors in 2009 as a long-term research project to explore and preserve the history of African-Americans at William & Mary. Since its establishment, the project has spawned numerous research endeavors, exhibits, programs and performances as well as the annual spring symposium.
“My hope and my expectation is that when the Lemon Project comes to a conclusion,” said President Taylor Reveley, “to the extent that records exist we will have unearthed them, we will have learned from them, and that there will be abiding fruits of this effort in terms of the campus’ relationship with the local African-American community, in terms of William & Mary’s understanding of its racial past, and in terms of a written and digital record of what that past was because it was not admirable on the whole, and there’s an enormous amount to learn from it.”
During his keynote address, given Saturday morning at the Mason School of Business, Wilder presented the theological justifications – primarily the Biblical story of Noah and his sons -- that colonists used to support the education of American Indians at places including Harvard and William & Mary while deeming enslaved people as “uneducable.”
For instance, one William & Mary professor, Hugh Jones, saw in American Indians “an intelligence and artistry that could be cultivated,” Wilder said.
“But there was no similar divine light in black people whom the minister viewed as ‘by nature, cut out for hard labor and fatigue,’” he added. “And so at William & Mary as in New England, two things emerged simultaneously: institutions for the evangelization of Native Americans and education of Native Americans and institutions that used enslaved black people to actually fund and underwrite that mission.”
Reveley, who spoke after Wilder’s address, plainly acknowledged that painful history at William & Mary.
“William & Mary owned slaves,” Reveley said. “William & Mary supported itself in part from the exploitation of slave labor. William & Mary joyfully joined Virginia in seceding from the Union. … In the period before the Civil War, William & Mary became an intellectual hotbed, an intellectual center of the attempt to justify slavery on intellectual grounds. … After the Civil War, as soon as possible, William & Mary supported segregation, our own American form of apartheid.”
Reveley also pointed out that there were some “countercurrents” throughout that history at William & Mary, including the first school for free and enslaved black children established by any college was at W&M, the founder of W&M’s law school, George Wythe, took an adamant stand against slavery, and W&M President Benjamin Ewell was equally adamant in his opposition to secession. Also, the commander of the U.S. Army at the outbreak of the Civil War was Winfield Scott, a W&M alumnus.
“But the dominant stream at William & Mary was slavery, secession, segregation,” Reveley said.
Change only came after federal judicial action, said Reveley, and the university saw its first African-American student, Hulon Willis, Sr., in 1951.
During a question-and-answer session after his talk, Wilder said that increasingly diverse campus populations in recent years have forced universities like William & Mary to have “uncomfortable conversations” about their histories.
“But those are good conversations,” he said. “The best conversations are the ones that are the most uncomfortable. … Colleges and universities in particular have an obligation to go through that ritual process of self-examination.”
Universities must ask themselves what their purpose is, Wilder said, and, if they want to exist in service to society, then they have an obligation to be truthful about their histories.
“We need to be honest about that past,” he said. “We need to wrestle with it. We need to invite the greater community in to greater discussion about it, and we also need to recognize that, when we do that, we establish our authority as institutions that are operating in the public interest.”