Chartered in 1693 by King William & Queen Mary of England, William & Mary's past is replete with names that stand out in U.S. history—Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington—men who helped lead the colonies to independence from England. The institution is also the second oldest university in the country, the home of the nation's first law school, first honor code and Phi Beta Kappa, the first academic Greek letter organization.
But there is more to the narrative than meets the eye. Like so many other institutions of higher education, north and south, William & Mary's hidden history includes a slaveholding past. For almost 170 years, the economy of the institution, like the economy of the country, was dependent upon the labor of enslaved people. It is this story that must be brought out of the shadows and into public view.
In the early 2000s a call rose to tell the history of slavery in this country as it played out on college and university campuses. In 2003, Dr. Ruth Simmons, then president of Brown University, established Brown's Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. In 2007, the Commonwealth of Virginia expressed "profound regret" for its role in slavery. By December 2007, the William & Mary Student Assembly, led by Tiseme Zegeye's '08 bill, "The Research Into and an Apology for William and Mary's Role in Slavery Act," called for the Board of Visitors (BOV) to "establish a commission to research the full extent of the College of William and Mary's role in slavery," report its findings publicly and establish a memorial to the "contributions of slaves at the College." In 2008, the Faculty Assembly passed a similar resolution in response to Professor Terry Meyers' (now Chancellor Professor of English Emeritus) assertion that "we here on this campus are directly, literally, and irredeemably part of the society, the College of William and Mary part, that was built with the forced labor of these enslaved human beings. We need, I think, to know more about that."
William & Mary's BOV brought historian Robert F. Engs, then professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, to campus to conduct research and write a report for the BOV. Dr. Engs' report led to the 2009 BOV resolution acknowledging that William & Mary "owned and exploited slave labor from its founding to the Civil War" and "that it engaged in the discrimination and exclusion that characterized educational institutions during the era of Jim Crow and disfranchisement and that it failed to challenge these hurtful policies." In response, the BOV established The Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation. Since 2009, the Lemon Project has sponsored classes, research, symposia and other initiatives that explore William & Mary's long history with race and race relations.
The Lemon Project Committee on Memorialization (LPCOM) was established in spring 2015 in response to the call for a memorial. LPCOM developed from a class taught by professors Jody Allen and Ed Pease in fall 2014. The course, Memorializing the Enslaved of William & Mary, consisted of traditional undergraduate students, a student studying at the graduate level, staff, alumni and members of the Greater Williamsburg community. During the semester course participants considered history, memory and design and where the three intersect. There were several special guests–Susan Kern, Executive Director of the Historic Campus; Matthew Lambert, Vice President for University Advancement; Wayne Boy, Director, Planning, Design & Construction; Joanne Braxton, Frances L. & Edwin L. Cummings Professor of English & Humanities and then President, Taylor Reveley. All of these individuals emphasized that a memorial to slaves is overdue at William & Mary.
While the committee membership has changed, it still consists of undergraduates, faculty, staff, alumni and members of the Greater Williamsburg community. Over a two-year period, the committee gathered ideas and discussed the best way to approach a memorial. LPCOM received feedback via sessions at the annual Lemon Project Symposium, town hall meetings on campus and in the community, and an online survey. LPCOM also benefited from feedback gathered during the six forums held during Fall Semester 2015 by the President's Task Force on Race and Race Relations.