Commemorating 50 years of African-Americans in residence
The following story originally appeared in the fall 2017 issue of the W&M Alumni Magazine - Ed.
Recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, have opened up old wounds that so many of us, in the Black and in other communities, had hoped would heal. If anything, they have spurred a national dialogue on our troubled history — particularly in Virginia — and provided us with the opportunity to come together to ensure that our nation’s ongoing divisiveness can be universally recognized and resolved.
As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of African-Americans in residence at William & Mary, we must seize this moment to have an open and honest discussion not only about the university’s past, but also where we are today and where we need to go tomorrow.
Rewind back to the 1960s and scenes like those we saw in Charlottesville weren’t unfamiliar. The news regularly showed white supremacists and Klan members invoking fear. On college campuses across the U.S., amidst violent war protests, overt racism collided with the civil rights movement. It was rare to see Black students walking by themselves out of fear for their own lives and that of their peers.
For the first three Black residential students at William & Mary — Janet Brown Strafer ’71, M.Ed. ’77, Karen Ely ’71 and Lynn Briley ’71 — their experiences are their own, similar and different from other Black experiences both then and now.
Brown Strafer felt that their undergraduate experiences were “uneventful compared to desegregation at other predominately white colleges at the time.”
“In some ways, attending William & Mary as a Black undergraduate was no different than for any other undergraduate,” she says. “We were
concerned with getting settled, choosing classes, and, subsequently, doing well in our studies. Obviously, for the three of us, life was very different since we were the only Black resident students at William & Mary.”
In 1967 — more than a decade after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case was decided — William & Mary’s campus was nearly void of mass protests and riots. In fact, it was fairly quiet. But so too were the racial undertones and hateful words uttered by some of the other students — uttered softly enough so they wouldn’t get noticed.
All three women had different reasons for attending William & Mary. In addition to the university’s great academic reputation, two major factors played a role in their final decision to attend: proximity to their hometowns and affordability.
Briley and Ely hail from Portsmouth, Va., and have known each other since grade school; Brown Strafer grew up in Newport News, Va. The three of them lived together throughout their time at William & Mary.
“It was a suggestion from my high school guidance counselor to come here. I also recall going to Williamsburg with my marching band at the time and I was very impressed with the beauty of the campus,” says Briley. “After talking to my parents regarding costs … we decided William & Mary would be a good choice.”
Brown Strafer’s guidance counselor, however, did not encourage her to apply. “I was told William & Mary was not a good fit for me. But being the defiant person I am, I was going to do something just because someone said I couldn’t do it.”
She submitted her application, including a compelling letter explaining her need for financial support. “Nobody in my family had been to college nor could they afford to send me. So when I found out I was going to get financial assistance, that sealed the deal for me,” says Brown Strafer.
For Ely, her financial aid package was also a defining factor for why she decided to go to the university. But almost immediately after she arrived on campus — the night after freshman orientation — she saw the word “nigger” written on the sidewalk.
It was around that time she vividly remembers thinking to herself that “it’s just us.”
In their eyes, they are not trailblazers. They didn’t go to William & Mary to make history. They went to the university to get a quality education and they were determined to get one.
But little did they know they were about to change the course of a centuries-old institution and pave a distinct path forward for so many other accomplished Black students whose stories are interwoven because of the color of their skin.
While their overall goal — graduating — was the same as every other college student, the three young women first had to navigate an unexplored environment, feeling alone and with only a handful of people on their side.
Current Board of Visitors member Warren Buck III M.S. ’70, Ph.D. ’76, D.Sc. ’13, who came to William & Mary from Morgan State University in 1968, felt that the racial disparity distracted from the university experience.
“How did the College expect folks to concentrate on their studies when they were challenged culturally without any support?”
With that question in mind, Buck, along with the three women and a few others, held meetings in 1969 to begin the process of creating the Black Student Organization (BSO).
“President Davis Paschall opposed it,” says Buck. “I recall telling him directly that he was a bigot; that a BSO was the right way toward making things right for the campus and these students.”
Buck attests that it was more than his comment that persuaded the president to finally approve of the BSO.
“The courage that Ely, Briley and Brown Strafer showed — residing on the campus as the first and only Blacks, let alone Black women — built an infrastructure for others to broaden the spectrum of culture for the entire campus while risking our own expulsion,” says Buck.
“This was evident through the creation of the BSO and protests to stop the playing of the Dixie fight song at public events by threatening to burn the Confederate flag, all while trying to gain an education like everyone else. It is culturally praiseworthy.”
Hulon Willis Jr. ’77, whose William & Mary lineage carried on with his daughter, Mica ’13, knows all too well the significance of Black students pursuing an education, in oftentimes lonely climates.
A decade before Ely, Briley and Brown Strafer came to campus, Willis Jr.’s father, Hulon Willis Sr. M.Ed. ’56, was admitted as the university’s first Black student and was joined later by Edward Augustus Travis, who was the first Black student to graduate receiving a Bachelor of Civil Law degree in 1954.
But the process of advancing diversity provided many challenges, especially for the few Black students during the early years of campus integration. “You see very few of us from that era [at alumni events], because that isolation is still traumatizing,” says Willis Jr.
In 1974, the Office of Minority Affairs was established. The first director of the office was Leroy Moore. The department evolved to the Office of Multicultural Affairs in 2009 and now to the Center for Student Diversity to reflect its expanded vision and service.
Over the years, campus organizations such as the African-American Male Coalition, African Cultural Society, Ebony Expressions Gospel Choir, ESSENCE Women of Color and Students of the Caribbean Association were added to offer supportive spaces.
Black Greek-lettered organizations also have a long and successful history at William & Mary. Currently there are charters for eight of the nine National Pan-Hellenic Council organizations.
More Black students and organizations populating the campus helped offset the sense of otherness the university created for them.
Though many non-Blacks perhaps saw this as self-segregating on a university campus still trying to evolve, Black students found their identities reinforced and supported through these communities.
“I was part of a tightly knit community that helped reinforce my identity,” says Margo Spratley ’00. “The College became a place where minority students comfortably created a unique experience while simultaneously being active members of the larger community.”
And, for many Black William & Mary students, seeking comfort in friends and organizations centered on Black empowerment was less about dividing a campus community and more about strengthening a family.
In the 1990s, Black faculty members at William & Mary felt that a Black studies program in the curriculum was long overdue.
“Programs of this sort had been developed at other universities during the 1960s and 70s,” says Jacquelyn Y. McLendon, professor emerita of English and Africana Studies, director emerita of the Black studies program and chair of the 50th Anniversary of African-Americans in
“In the mid-1990s a group of interested faculty began developing a program,” says McLendon. “Although the program was finally developed in 1997, faculty members such as Joanne M. Braxton, professor of English and humanities, John Stanfield, professor of sociology and Berhanu Abegaz, professor of economics, among others, with the support of Joel Schwartz, professor of government and director of the Charles Center, had met before I arrived in 1992. We obtained support from the dean of Arts & Sciences, then the Educational Policy Committee, and finally the whole faculty.”
Such a push to diversify academia for students on a historically white campus was key to creating Black-led spaces to nurture a new generation of William & Mary scholars and staff. For William & Mary, it was imperative that its historical identity embrace the concept of inclusivity and that this was conveyed to the increasingly diverse student body. For the few Black faculty employed during the 1980s and 1990s, the opportunity to open up such relevant courses that taught Black history and culture was not just essential in making the campus more comfortable for Black students; it was also rooted in the reality of lived experiences of all students within society.
In William & Mary’s long history, the late Carroll F.S. Hardy, an honorary alumna, was one of the most influential leaders for Black students, staff and faculty, leaving a legacy of profound impact.
“Dean Hardy,” as students lovingly called her, joined William & Mary in 1980 as associate dean of Multicultural Affairs. She served many roles during her tenure at the university, eventually becoming associate vice president for Student Affairs from 1990 to 1995.
Hardy was a beloved administrator and a mentor to many Black students and others at William & Mary. She was known to be tough but nurturing, and she encouraged her students to go outside of their comfort zone.
Hardy believed that Black students should actively participate fully in a variety of William & Mary activities so they could be prepared for real-life scenarios both during and after college.
“I wanted to walk away [as a freshman] after I read, ‘Thanks for taking some more deserving white students spot’ hand written at the top of a Flat Hat newspaper article about incoming Black students admitted that year,” says Dywona “DeeDee” Vantree-Keller ’89. “Dean W. Samuel Sadler and Dean Hardy challenged me to stay and change the atmosphere at William & Mary through scholarship and leadership. I did just that as a president’s aide, the 1989 Sullivan Award recipient honored at Commencement, and now, as an alumni class ambassador.”
Hardy also insisted that students take on roles in organizations across the spectrum and really claim W&M as “their” institution. Similarly, Dean Hardy believed that Black alumni should have a voice and a role in the life of W&M after graduation. In 1992, she was the guiding force in the creation of the Hulon Willis Association, the African-American alumni organization at the university.
“I could have gone to a Black college to avoid the racial slurs and feel more comfortable. But this place is preparing me for reality. And no one helps you deal with life better than Hardy,” said Tonya Parker ’88, M.Ed. ’90, Ed.S. ’94, a Black student (and cousin of Willis Jr.) who was quoted in a May 1990 Parade magazine article about Hardy.
Hardy developed and executed a 10-point system in an effort to help Black students flourish throughout their college experience. She assigned Black freshmen with Black upperclassmen who would serve as mentors, and every year hosted a Black leadership conference on campus where 500 students across the U.S. received leadership training.
“The annual National Black Student Leadership conference, held under Dean Hardy, helped me develop a network of other Black student leaders across the country, and have comfort that I was not alone,” said Earl Granger III ’92, M.Ed. ’98, former president of both the BSO and Hulon Willis Association.
Hardy’s plan was successful. During her tenure, the Black student population doubled, and larger percentages of Black students graduated on time.
“When I look at Black students I see me — before the polish,” Hardy was quoted saying in Parade at the time. “And I realize how much was done for me. When I have done good for Black students here, they must return my good work by doing good for someone else one day.”
To honor Hardy’s legacy, in 2016 W&M named one of its residence halls, located on Barksdale field, in her honor. Additionally, a group of devoted alumni recently created a scholarship endowment bearing her name for need-based aid. Hardy was a strong advocate for providing needed resources for deserving students.
For many Black students, racism on campus is an ageless reality that continues to be a part of the experience.
“I was at a fraternity party with a roommate during freshman orientation when a white student said to us that, since Blacks were ‘built like apes,’ we would be great here,” says Richard Riley ’08.
Being a Black student on a predominantly white campus such as William & Mary doesn’t necessarily mean that a student will be traumatized. It also does not suggest that every Black graduate experienced times of anxiety, stress or depression. Continued acts of racism on campus, however, have taken a toll on some Black students, some of whom transfer, withdraw or harbor legitimate resentment.
Such stories don’t necessarily speak for every person; nor do they imply they are only isolated incidents. What it continues to show for many Black students, and for the greater William & Mary community, is that, systemically, while some things have changed, other issues remain on campus.
“As a licensed therapist, one of the biggest complaints I hear is, ‘I get tired of explaining my story or common expressions of who I am to someone,’” says Crystal Morrison ’09. “I had enjoyable experiences on campus but, [whenever I encountered] those [to] whom I felt I had to explain how I earned the right to be there, I further positioned my doubt internally, when it should have been reframed to the inquirer in order to affect change.”
There has been increased emphasis on empowering admitted Black students and students of color in general (30 percent of the newly admitted student cohort). The strong work of a Multicultural Recruitment Team, WMSURE (W&M Scholars Undergraduate Research Experience) and the continuation of bridge programs such as the PLUS Program (Preparing for Life as a University Student) have created avenues to help students of color pursue and thrive in higher education.
And in 2009, the university, with the support of the Board of Visitors, established the Lemon Project, which is an ongoing initiative to investigate and learn from William & Mary’s treatment of African-Americans during times of slavery, secession and segregation. In doing so, William & Mary led the way, becoming one of the first universities in the nation to commit to a complete and comprehensive review of its involvement with slavery.
Named after Lemon, an enslaved man owned by William & Mary during the late 18th and early 19th century, the long term project has involved comprehensive research and scholarship with many members of the William & Mary and greater Williamsburg communities.
“This initiative, was in fact, student driven, spearheaded through the efforts of Richael Faithful ’07, Tiseme Zegeye ’08, Justin Reid ’09, members of the student government and the campus NAACP chapter,” said Lemon Project Director and Visiting Assistant Professor of History Jody L. Allen Ph.D. ’07.
In 2007, the student assembly passed a resolution calling on the university to study its slaveholding history, make it public and establish a memorial to the enslaved. The following year, Chancellor Emeritus Professor of English Terry Meyers initiated a similar resolution in the faculty assembly. In the fall of 2008, historian Robert Engs of the University of Pennsylvania came to William & Mary to teach a class and begin the initial research that led to the establishment of the Lemon Project.
“To have a few Black students help the campus become one of the first in the nation to acknowledge a once-ignored history has, in many ways, helped Black students see themselves as part of a storied legacy,” says Allen.
Currently, a subcommittee of the Lemon Project is working on a plan for a memorial on campus to enslaved individuals whose labors built up and improved the university.
In recent years, William & Mary has made efforts to improve the campus climate for its Black students and the greater student body. In 2012, Fanchon “Chon” Glover M.Ed. ’99, Ed.D. ’06, was promoted as the university’s first chief diversity officer and in 2017 the Office of Diversity and Inclusion expanded by adding a deputy chief diversity officer, Dania Matos. The mission of the office is to create a community that is representative and inclusive of individuals with different backgrounds, talents and skills, where all faculty, staff and students feel supported and affirmed.
The annual Donning of the Kente Ceremony, a partnership between the Lemon Project and the Hulon Willis Association, has taken place every commencement since 2012. This rite-of-passage ceremony, in which students of color receive stoles from their families and friends to wear with their graduation robes, seeks to recognize and reward achievement, encourage students to continue striving for excellence and provide an intimate end-of-college experience for graduating seniors of color.
In 2015, President Taylor Reveley convened a Task Force on Race and Race Relations, a group comprising faculty, students and alumni, to examine and improve diversity and inclusion efforts on campus. The task force report states, “We believe that this represents an enormous opportunity for William & Mary to seize the moment on issues of race and race relations, here on our campus.”
President Reveley and the Board of Visitors have acted upon a number of the more than 50 recommendations put forth by the task force, some of which can be accomplished in the short-term and others that will take much longer. Recently, the task force’s implementation team released a progress report on the recommendations, which included the recent hiring of a number of faculty members through a new initiative from Provost Michael R. Halleran that seeks to increase the diversity of the university’s faculty (more information on the task force is available at http://www.wm.edu/racerelations/).
In 2016, the Board of Visitors enacted one of the recommendations by unanimously voting to name two prominent residence halls on campus in honor of African-Americans with a connection to William & Mary. In addition to the one named after Hardy, the second was named in honor of Lemon.
This past June, hundreds of alumni gathered in Washington, D.C., to honor the 25th anniversary of the Hulon Willis Association. The attendance of Briley, Brown Strafer, Ely and Willis Jr. set a reflective tone for all guests.
The weekend served as a moment for Black alumni to come together and provided a feeling very similar to a family reunion. Alumni from a range of classes networked and shared stories from yesteryear. At one point, we raised our hands if certain university-related moments were part of our individual story. The raised hands showed how intertwined many of us were, independent of our decade of graduation.
In several remarks during the anniversary celebration, there was a call to action for Black alumni: actively promote, and if needed, create campus resources — cultural, educational and financial — that acknowledge students’ cultural identities and the important process of increasing diversity and inclusion.
During one of the weekend events, Danielle Greene ’12 expressed her compassion for students of color who struggled during their William & Mary experience.
“What are we doing as a group to make sure that the Black students now are thriving?” Greene asked. “What are we doing for students behind us that we’ve never met? I challenge each of us to dedicate ourselves to making sure that the misdeeds of the College don’t skip from year to year, new student to new student.”
The committed kinship with professors, students and alumni can, and does, create purposeful and educational opportunities over the long-term.
“Naturally, I stumbled during my four years at the College, but there was always a supportive community to uplift me; a network of students, faculty, staff and alumni,” says Shanda Cooper ’06. “And now, 11 years later, I will do the same for future William & Mary students.”
In the coming year, William & Mary will continue to honor and commemorate the legacy of the last 50 years and more.
“It’s hard to believe that 50 years ago three young Black women moved into Jefferson Hall on a hot, late-summer day, forever changing not just dorm life on campus, but the university itself,” says Pamera Hairston ’81, J.D. ’84. “There was no tweeting or selfies to record the moment; just three young women looking for their dorm room,
wondering what challenges the next four years would bring.”
Cheryl Wesley ’78 agrees: “I don’t think most folks, Blacks and non-Blacks, recognize the significance of that. Recent on-and-off campus incidents highlight that we’ve come a long way, but — from faculty/staff recruitment to students invested in William & Mary’s future — there remains still a very long way to go.”
And though the rate of Black admitted students has grown since 1967 — currently 8 percent of the student body is Black — William & Mary has not seen the same successes with faculty and senior administrators.
So, what do the next 50 years hold for Black alumni, current and prospective Black students, and for the campus community as a whole? For many Black alumni, moving forward includes providing financial support, participating in the upcoming presidential search and much more.
Nubia Dickerson ’09 shared what she would like to see improve: “Hire and retain more faculty and staff of color. Create more support for students from marginalized backgrounds. Place a premium on making students feel safe, valued and heard, and listen and act upon the requests of students already on campus,” she says.
For everyone — former, current and future students — we have to become proactive, innovative and responsible to ensure a more welcoming and inclusive environment.
“We have to learn from what we, and others, have experienced, and the only way is to be a part of the journey with the university,” Glover says. “This historic milestone is everyone’s history; it’s important that, before we can become stronger because of it, we have to first educate ourselves about it.
“We all have to be willing to promote promise and make progress so that when we reach the centennial celebration in 2067, folks then can say, ‘Yes, we have had significant faculty of color, more students of color and a better understanding of life experiences that unite us and differentiate us.
But even now we still won’t rest on our laurels. We will continue to be a microcosm of society, and adapt to accommodate our diverse body in any changing climate.”
“We won’t just celebrate; we’ll also commemorate our history of perseverance that still continues to bring our campus together.”
Kevin Dua ’09 is the 2017 Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History Massachusetts History Teacher of the Year. His documentary, “Reclaiming Black Faces: For Frederick Douglass, Nat Turner, and Denmark Vesey,” is a web exhibit at The Commonwealth Museum in Boston. He currently teaches history in Cambridge, Mass.
For more information on the 50th Anniversary of African-Americans in Residence, including a current list of events, see www.wm.edu/50.
Information on the Hulon Willis Association is available on Facebook at WMAlumniHWA or by contacting Jack Edgar at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202.836.8602.
If you would like to contribute to the Carroll F.S. Hardy Scholarship, the Hulon L. Willis Sr. Memorial Scholarship Endowment or other William & Mary diversity initiatives, visit FortheBold.wm.edu/diversity.