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College of William & Mary to explore the legacies of slavery and racism

Original story here.

The College of William & Mary will deepen and broaden the examination of its own history with a grant emphasizing the experiences of people enslaved by the school and the Founding Fathers.

The five-year, $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will fund several efforts to explore the legacies of slavery and racism, including classes, an oral history project with descendants of enslaved people and exhibits at James Monroe’s Highland. Highland was a home of the fifth U.S. president and alumnus of William & Mary, and the university owns and operates the historic site near Charlottesville.

The grant’s launch coincides with statewide efforts marking the 400 years since the first Africans were brought to Virginia. And it continues the school’s push to give a more honest — and troubling — account of its own history.

Dozens of schools, including Brown University, Georgetown University and the University of Virginia, have been confronting the legacy of slavery and racism in recent years.

Students at William & Mary urged the school to more critically examine its history in 2007, and in 2009, the school launched the Lemon Project, a research effort named for a man who was enslaved by the college. The school is planning a prominent memorial to the people who were enslaved there.

“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,” Mellon Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander said in a statement.

The school hopes to draw in the descendant community in several ways. There will be free genealogy classes for people in the Williamsburg area, said Jody L. Allen, director of the Lemon Project and an assistant professor of history. Research and oral histories with descendants of the people enslaved at Highland and William & Mary will inform classes and exhibits.

Sara Bon-Harper, executive director of Highland, said Monroe owned 250 enslaved people, starting when he was 16, and their work and experiences are an integral part of his story.

People have been asking for help researching their family histories, Allen said, and they know of many eager to talk about their memories; she recalled an elderly descendant tearing up as she described black students not being allowed to wear caps and gowns when they graduated from her high school during the Jim Crow years.

“This will be a game-changer,” said Ann Marie Stock, vice provost for academic and faculty affairs at William & Mary, anticipating a much broader story about national identity informing their curriculum.

“We were a slave-owning institution — that’s part of our past,” she said. “We’ll be facing that head-on.”