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The Lemon Project: A journey of reconciliation

As long-term effort prepares for next chapter, Board of Visitors resolution apologizes for W&M’s history of owning slaves and racial discrimination

More than eight years ago, Lemon was just a name among many on a list buried deep in an archive. 

Today, Lemon is synonymous for a collaborative research project that has brought William & Mary’s history with slavery to light. As the Lemon Project approaches the end of its original charge, its committee members are reflecting on the progress they’ve made while making plans to memorialize the enslaved people — including the project’s namesake — who helped build and sustain the university. 

“I think we’ve done a good job of convincing people that the school is committed to this work,” said Jody Allen, director of the Lemon Project and a faculty member in the history department. “I think we’ve accomplished a chunk of what we set out to do -- more people than before know something of William & Mary’s previously unexplored history, but there’s more work to do.” 

A profound regret and apology 

At President Taylor Reveley’s recommendation Friday, the William & Mary Board of Visitors adopted a resolution saluting the hard work of all those involved in the Lemon Project, including Allen and the late Robert F. Engs, whose scholarship while a visiting professor at William & Mary served as a foundation for the project. The Board also passed a resolution to extend the Lemon Project, and importantly, included an apology for William & Mary’s history as it relates to exploiting slave labor and racial discrimination. 

“The Board profoundly regrets these activities, apologizes for them, expresses its deep appreciation for the contributions made by the African American members of its community to the vitality of William & Mary then, now, and for all time coming, and commits to continue our efforts to remedy the lingering effects of past injustices,”  Reveley read from the resolution at the meeting.

The timing of the resolution is important. Throughout the 2017-18 academic year, William & Mary has commemorated the 50th anniversary of the first three African-American students in residence on campus. Thursday, Reveley and the Board joined members of the university community to dedicate two plaques at the Wren Building – one honoring first African-American residential students, Lynn Briley ’71, Karen Ely ’71 and Janet Brown Strafer ’71, M.Ed. ’77, known as the “Legacy 3,” and a second honoring the first 24 women to enroll at W&M as students in 1918. Starting next fall, the university will mark the 100th anniversary of that occasion with a yearlong celebration. 

“By the plaques on the wall on the Wren just erected, we are recognizing the role of African Americans and of women over the vast sweep of William & Mary’s history,” said W&M President Taylor Reveley. “They played significant parts since the beginning. The parts they will play going forward will only continue to grow. 

“Indeed, for William & Mary to thrive in this century and succeeding centuries, the parts played by African Americans and women at William & Mary must not just continue to grow. They must grow robustly, vibrantly. It’s good and long overdue that we are here today.” 

The foundation of the Lemon Project 

In 2005, Terry Meyers, professor of English emeritus, came across Fanny and Adam, two children who had been enslaved by W&M in the 18th century, while researching a campus building. Two years later, the Student Assembly, led by student senator Tiseme Zegeye '08, passed a resolution which asked for the university to conduct research on its history with slavery, to make those findings public and to erect a memorial to the enslaved. 

Engs came to William & Mary in 2008 as the Visiting J.P. Harrison Professor of History. He taught a course that explored the Civil War experience as described by black and white Southerners, mostly from the Tidewater area. At the same time he led a working group of faculty and staff and along with others conducted archival research which led to his report “The College, Race and Slavery: Report to the Provost and Faculty.” The BOV used that report to support its 2009 resolution to establish 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.”

In 2010, Engs retired in Williamsburg to be near family and he continued to serve as a consultant to the project until his death in 2013.

“Bob Engs was an intellectual force," said Allen. "As an 'outsider' he was able to present the College’s story without polish and with a sense of urgency that inspired the Board to act. He was a mentor and friend to many, including me, and he provided the backbone to this project.”

Memorializing the enslaved 

Over the past eight years, the work of the Lemon Project has continued in earnest. Some of the project’s achievements thus far include its spring symposia and other community outreach efforts, said Allen. On campus, the project has also sponsored classes and recurring events, such as the “porch talk” series and the Donning of the Kente ceremony that takes during Commencement weekend. In 2016, at the recommendation of the President’s Race and Race Relations Task Force, the university named two residence halls in honor of Lemon and the late Carroll Hardy, a longtime and beloved administrator in student affairs who made an indelible impact on diversity at the university. 

A major effort that will soon formally get underway is a design competition for a memorial on the Historic Campus honoring the enslaved at William & Mary. The details are being finalized and will be announced in the coming weeks. 

“We remember Thomas Jefferson and John Tyler and James Monroe, and we also need to remember who made their lives as students at the College possible,” Allen said. “They had time to study and think and plan and do what they needed to do as students because there was someone else there taking care of the buildings, making sure they had food, keeping their boots, shoes and rooms clean, to name just a few of the daily tasks of the enslaved. For several decades, enslaved people cultivated tobacco at Nottoway Quarter, the plantation owned by William & Mary that provided income for the College and student scholarships. Indeed, what would the students have done without enslaved people?  So we need to remember all the people who played a part in establishing and maintaining William & Mary.” 

Work on a way to memorialize the enslaved at William & Mary has been ongoing since the fall 2014 semester when Allen and Ed Pease, a senior lecturer in architectural design, taught a class on the subject and asked students to create proposals. Members from that class formed the Lemon Project’s Committee on Memorialization, which others, students and community members, have since joined. It is that committee that recommended the international search for memorial designs.  

“It makes it more accessible to everyone and not just people who are in the field,” said Allen. “We’re trying to make this an inclusive opportunity for everyone.” 

A timeline for the creation of the memorial will be finalized after a specific design is chosen, Allen said. 

The next chapter 

As the Lemon Project looks beyond its first chapter, the university has committed to extending the project beyond its initial charge.  

The Lemon Project committee is still discussing recommendations for future efforts, but Allen expects it to include the creation of center for research on slavery and Jim Crow and a post-doctorate position. 

“We’d like to see more long-term archaeological research not only on campus but also on Nottoway Quarter. The school owned that plantation. We know there are stories there in the ground waiting to be told, so we need to focus more on that property,” said Allen, adding that they also want to continue the search for the location where enslaved people were buried on or near campus. 

“There has been over the years, archaeological research done by different offices, so we’re also looking for a way to bring those findings together because we think that things are stored in different places but they haven’t necessarily been ‘talking with each other’,” she said. 

Allen said she is proud of what it has accomplished and eagerly awaits the discoveries and progress still to be made. 

“I know there are also people who are waiting to see what the final answer will be, and I don’t think there is one but I do think it’s important that we continue the work, that the school continues the work because this isn’t something that can be accomplished in eight years, she said.