William & Mary

$1M Mellon Foundation grant funds inclusive research and community engagement at William & Mary

  • An artists rendering of the memorial concept which includes a brick, hearth-like structure
    Memorial concept:  Researchers will work to identify the enslaved who built and maintained W&M’s main campus and to preserve the stories of their descendants through the Oral History Initiative spearheaded by Highland. Parts of the research will be incorporated into a Memorial to African Americans Enslaved by William & Mary planned for the historic campus.  Courtesy image
  • An aerial view of Highland surrounded by green fields and trees
    Highland:  The grant will be used to design new exhibits informed by ongoing archaeological and archival research and the Oral History Initiative at Highland.  Photo courtesy of Highland/Gene Runion
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The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded William & Mary a $1 million grant to support inclusive research, teaching and community engagement around the legacies of slavery and racism.

The five-year grant will fund several key initiatives, including community-led research into the legacies of slavery at William & Mary and James Monroe’s Highland, an oral history project that documents the untold stories of descendants of enslaved men and women, new historical exhibits and university-wide courses that promote inclusion and civil discourse.

“The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant supports William & Mary's commitment to partnering with our wider region and communities to illuminate our shared history,” said President Katherine Rowe. “By sharing authority to re-interpret the past with descendants of those who lived and were enslaved at Highland, we are taking a new approach to how we tell that history. We believe we will be able to tell a fuller story this way, and one with more consequence, today.”

The project, called Sharing Authority to Remember and Re-Interpret the Past, will be funded by the grant from July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2024. The start of the project coincides with statewide public events that mark 400 years since the arrival of the first Africans to Virginia. The project is a university initiative that will be executed through the Lemon Project in Williamsburg and James Monroe’s Highland, a former presidential residence that is a division of William & Mary, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“The William & Mary campus was built and maintained by dozens, if not hundreds, of enslaved people, including children,” said Mellon Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander. “By partnering with their descendants to conduct new research and share it widely with the public, William & Mary demonstrates how building meaningful partnerships can move communities towards reconciliation and lift up histories that have not yet been fully understood.”

The project builds on the work the university has conducted in the past decade through the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation. Established in 2009, the Lemon Project was born out of a call to action to acknowledge and rectify wrongs against African Americans at W&M, whether through action or inaction.

“One of our goals is to understand the African American experience at William & Mary from slavery through the Jim Crow and Civil Rights era,” said Jody Allen, assistant professor of history and Lemon Project director. “This funding will have a great impact by allowing us to conduct significant genealogy work. Through this genealogy research we will be able to better understand the university’s connections to the African American community and they will in turn help us fill in some pieces of the story that we have not yet been able to uncover.”

Researchers will work to identify the enslaved who built and maintained W&M’s main campus and to preserve the stories of their descendants through the Oral History Initiative spearheaded by Highland. Parts of the research will be incorporated into a Memorial to African Americans Enslaved by William & Mary planned for the historic campus. A Lemon Mosaic Diversity post-graduate fellow will co-design and teach the on-campus portion of the interdisciplinary course based at Highland, and will offer a free class on genealogical research to residents of the greater Williamsburg area.

Highland’s recent history includes the rediscovery of its lost presidential home and creating connections with individuals whose ancestors were enslaved at Highland. (Photo courtesy of Highland/Gene Runion)A parallel research effort will be conducted at Highland. The grant will be used to design new exhibits informed by ongoing archaeological and archival research and the Oral History Initiative. The initiative will include the narratives of a dozen or more individuals whose ancestors were enslaved on the property. Their narratives will shed light on slavery and its enduring legacies. The descendants, some of whom who live just miles away from Highland, will collaborate on research and interpretation, as well as guide and assess Highland’s treatment of race and its role in history. Highland will expand its oral history initiative with the new narratives from the descendant community identified there, as well as those gathered in Williamsburg. Those narratives will be used as materials for course development on main campus.

Showcasing the untold stories of the descendants of the enslaved gives Highland the potential to weave stories of enslavement and race relations into the main narrative of the site.

“I’m really excited about the collaborative nature of this project because it engages the William & Mary campus with Highland,” said Ann Marie Stock, vice provost for academic and faculty affairs. “It also connects a number of initiatives across the university so it is very much in keeping with our commitment to institution-wide thinking. It’s very consistent with our model as a university that aims to work across units in order to create synergy.”

Starting in the second year of the grant, William & Mary will offer students diverse experiential opportunities through an annual interdisciplinary course. The first part of the course will be led by a post-doctoral fellow who will involve undergraduates in the research and outreach efforts undertaken at Highland and Williamsburg. The second part of the course will be taught in Williamsburg by another post-doctoral fellow. This signature opportunity will engage up to 40 Monroe Scholars over four years to digitize and disseminate research conducted at Highland and on main campus.

The Mellon Foundation is a longtime supporter of innovation in research and teaching at William & Mary. The foundation recently made a separate $100,000 grant to support President Rowe’s strategic initiatives. The grant will be used to fund faculty and staff learning initiatives that will be offered through the Studio for Teaching & Learning Innovation, when it opens this fall.

The collaborative and community-centric research gathered from descendants at Highland and Williamsburg will be used to develop inclusive courses and curricula.

“This project will unite the Lemon Project on main campus with the research and interpretation that we do on the Highland campus into a single initiative,” said Sara Bon-Harper, executive director of James Monroe’s Highland. “In addition, involving communities outside the university is an innovative way to approach history.”

The new or enhanced courses will be created through William & Mary’s University Teaching Project (UTP). UTP will form two teams of faculty from all five schools at the university and the W&M Scholars Undergraduate Research Experience. One team’s role will be to convey the historical and interpretive work gathered at Highland and Williamsburg to the community around questions of race, immigration, veterans’ issues, and the rights of indigenous populations. 

The second UTP team will develop courses and extracurricular opportunities that connect students with community stakeholders. Half of the courses funded through the Mellon grant will be new, while the remainder will be modifications to current courses offered at the university.