President Rowe's remarks on naming and renaming
William & Mary President Katherine A. Rowe gave the following remarks to the Board of Visitors Committee on Administration, Buildings and Grounds during its April 23, 2021, meeting in Williamsburg. - Ed.
At this meeting, we are continuing work begun by President Reveley and prior Boards of Visitors more than a decade ago, to ensure that our campus does not celebrate those who upheld the Confederacy, Jim Crow, Segregation and the racist ideologies they spread.
And we are expanding who is honored on our campus: who, among our past pioneers, we uplift as examples of the institution we aspire to be.
The actions I recommend today deliver on my February memo of response to the PNR report. They respond to feedback from the W&M community and to discussions at the Board meetings this year. We have approached this work in a phased and deliberate way, laying out our principles, consulting broadly — listening to students, faculty, staff, alumni, neighbors – and especially importantly, consulting with descendants of those most nearly affected by our history of slavery, and families of those whose names we discuss today.
With these actions, all buildings at W&M known to be associated with the Confederacy have been reviewed with appropriate planning now in place to rename or contextualize.
This work has been thorough. And the way we have gone about it is consistent with our identity and values as an institution. Here’s how: William & Mary educates complex problem-solvers, who approach the world’s most difficult challenges from multiple angles and perspectives. We deal in deliberate, measured modes of knowledge-making. We understand dissent and disagreement as paths to growth that ultimately make us stronger. Our values of belonging and integrity inspire us to reach for fuller truths, in a way that fulfills our commitments to every new generation we welcome to our campus. The past is the past but how we know it, how we tell it, evolves as we learn more, and as our communities change. William & Mary must pursue truth-telling in a way that affirms that we will not cover up the depredations of slavery and segregation.
The actions I recommend to the Board today embrace the long history of loyal William & Mary people and roles. They expand representation of under-represented alumni, across time. And importantly, we are acknowledging individuals who believed in and actively advanced the pursuit of fuller, more complete histories. I thank the Tyler family, the Willis family, the Boswell family, Art Matsu’s family and the Taliaferro family for their gracious support of these honors.
Student Assembly has asked that all names associated with slavery be removed, so it is important to speak to this request. The board has directed me to contextualize our nation’s founders and that work is proceeding; I intend to complete it substantially by this summer. This is work I embrace as an historian and in my view such fuller stories should also guide us with regards to Benjamin Ewell. As I shared in September, I began last year with the assumption that Ewell’s case was clear-cut and that W&M should rename Ewell Hall because he took up arms against this country. Moreover, some students had suggested a relationship to prominent Black business leaders in town, Samuel and Joanna Harris. So I read deeply in Ewell’s biography and the scholarly literature of W&M in the period, to verify what we could know, and as I did, I came to the opposite conclusion.
Ewell’s story is one we should honor and share, in its complexity, for several reasons. Because of his actions, over many years, to resist Secession and undo the depredations of slavery, before and after the war. Because the idea of redemption is absolutely crucial as we work to eradicate the injustice of racism. The path of redemption and reconciliation is one we are still on as a nation, and it is still incomplete. So understanding how and where it began is necessary and meaningful.
I also commissioned research into the idea that Harris supported Ewell and William & Mary: a wonderful story that I I hoped might be true. Unfortunately, diligent research showed no relationship with the Harrises while Ewell was president. If Samuel Harris lent Ewell money, as one historian suggests, it must have been after his 30 years of service to William & Mary.
By summer, we will publish the results of our research on Ewell’s fuller story on campus and online, together with that of our nation’s founders, beginning with Jefferson and Monroe.
With respect to our nation’s founders, we cannot sweep them away and ignore the revolutionary ideas of liberty and democracy they launched; those ideas have empowered oppressed peoples around the world. Nor can we rest easy with simple stories of their achievements, without honestly grappling with how those ideas arose in a society defined by enslavement. We acknowledge that our nation has not understood this history fully, taught it well, nor reconciled with it as we need to. As the Alma Mater of the Nation, it is our role to speed this understanding, with care and respect.
We are part of history and part of change. We bear responsibilities to the past, and the present, and the future. Leading the country in understanding how to tell full stories well and wisely will be a critical part of William & Mary’s work as a teaching and learning institution, over the coming years.
We have amazing partners: many other universities; Virginia’s legislators and the governor; descendants communities; the City of Williamsburg, First Baptist Church, Colonial Williamsburg; our students, staff, faculty and alumni. We are united in a patriotic commitment to make our country better and we know the stories we tell are crucial to that effort. We don’t always agree, but together we will discover how to do this important work well.