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Historic Campus

A Landscape of Slavery

William & Mary's Historic Campus is an approximately two-acre diamond-shaped boundary containing the university's oldest buildings. These include the College (now called Wren) Building (1695-1699), the oldest college building still standing in the United States; the Brafferton Indian School (1723) and President's House (1732). The College Building faces east, flanked by the Brafferton on the south and the President's House on the north, creating a forecourt toward Duke of Gloucester Street, the main street of Virginia's colonial capital. These buildings defined W&M's academic, administrative and residential life throughout almost the entire period that William & Mary owned slaves. Slaves built and worked in these buildings; they lived in the main College Building, and likely the other buildings, too. As with other early American sites, the more ephemeral landscapes of gardens, kitchens, laundry, stables, carpentry yards and other work sites do not survive except as archaeological sites. William & Mary's Historic Campus is a National Historic Landmark.

During the eighteenth century, formal gardens lined the public-facing yard toward the town. On the other side, the courtyard formed within the north and south wings of the main building re-oriented activity toward the university interior. The work of the university went on in the buildings, and in the yards north, south and west of the main building. Archaeology confirms the locations of brick kilns and other work areas to the south of the main building. To its west lay the kitchen garden for supplying the table. Also to the west lay a sizable physic garden for botanical and scientific observation. Further west College Woods supplied fuel and building materials. This was a landscape of slave labor.

The present form of these historic buildings dates from 1929-1931, when John D. Rockefeller, Jr.'s money restored the colonial capital and created Colonial Williamsburg. Thus, the colonial revival Historic Campus is anchored firmly to the period of early American slavery. The Boston architectural firm of Perry, Shaw, and Hepburn, with landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff, detailed the Restoration of Williamsburg as a sanitized colonial past of white elite Virginians.

When William & Mary expanded beyond its colonial footprint, Williamsburg was no longer the capital of Virginia. Following the 1859 fire, the university built an administrative building (on the site of present-day Ewell Hall), followed by a science building to the north west of the College Building. W&M became a state institution in 1906. The first major expansion of the university, both physically and demographically, was after W&M began enrolling (white) women in 1918. Between 1922 and 1935, W&M built an ambitious modern campus to meet the needs of a co-educational, liberal arts institution. This Georgian Revival ensemble of an inner ring of six academic buildings and an outer ring of six dormitories around a central Sunken Garden exemplifies the work of architect Charles M. Robinson and landscape architect Charles F. Gillette. Further expansion during the later twentieth century continued west of the Sunken Garden campus. By 1967, when William & Mary began admitting blacks as residential undergraduates, campus had expanded west of the Sunken Garden.

In many ways, the west side of the university gestures toward promises yet to unfold, it is the trajectory of an institution that grew from its philosophy school beginnings to today's advanced liberal arts university. Despite this expansion, William & Mary's Historic Campus remains the center of the university's ceremonial life. William & Mary students begin their first semester by walking through the over-three-hundred year old College Building at fall Convocation, and they walk from here to Commencement the day they graduate. Students still take classes in the College Building (now Wren Building) and they might perform music here, be inducted into an honor society or attend a dinner. William & Mary's 28th president has just moved into the President's House, and the Brafferton serves the office of the president and provost.

William & Mary is part of the long history of slavery in Virginia and the United States and slavery is part of its history. Enslaved men, women and children saw the initial construction, destruction by three fires and rebuilding of the College. They watched and contributed to events of the American Revolution and the Civil War here. They supported the exceptional and everyday needs of a university. The Memorial to the Enslaved at William & Mary will bear witness to the past, speak to the present, and look to the future to reflect within and upon this important site of American slavery.