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The Sir Christopher Wren Building is both the past and present face of the College of William and Mary. Through Convocation, Commencement, college tours and classes, the Wren Building and the memorials within it inform students and visitors on what the college stands for and stood for in the past. Nov. 9, 2018, a new memorial to the individuals associated with the College who fought in the Civil War was put up on display in the information center of the Wren Building.
The new memorial replaces the old memorial to students and faculty at the College who joined the Confederacy as soldiers and members of government after the school closed in 1861. The old memorial, which was emblazoned with a Confederate flag, was in the central hallway of the Wren Building — where students walk through during Commencement and Convocation ceremonies — alongside other war memorials.
“It was a very negative symbol,” history professor and Lemon Project Director Jody Allen said. “You don’t want anyone walking through the Wren Building, see that, and getting the idea that they won’t be welcome.”
The old Confederate plaque was erected in 1914 when similar memorials were being erected around the American South to commemorate the “lost cause” of the Confederacy during the Jim Crow era. In the summer of 2015, former College President Taylor Reveley decided to remove the memorial from the Wren building using private funds, which coincided with a similar decision to remove Confederate symbology from the College Mace.
“After the shooting at Mother Emmanuel church in Charleston, the decision was finally made to remove symbols of the Confederacy from public places,” Executive Director of Historic Campus and history professor Susan Kern Ph.D ’05 said.
After the Confederate memorial was removed, Reveley made a commitment to replace the Confederate plaque with a new plaque related to the Civil War. The new plaque was funded by private donations and was going to be placed in the main Wren hallway in fall 2017. However, the placing of the plaque was delayed, in wake of a fraught political climate.
“That change was made after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville in August of 2017,” Kern said.
The plaque’s placement was delayed for an entire year after the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally Aug. 12, which resulted in the killing of Heather Heyer. White supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. is currently on trial for charges of murder. The new memorial was placed in the information center Nov. 9, 2018, instead of the main Wren hallway, accompanied by four panels providing further historical context for the memorial.
“We decided that anything that had to do with the Civil War in our current climate needed to be in a larger historical context,” Kern said. “That putting up something about the Civil War without signaling that people are in a museum space where they are encountering it is not doing the job we do here with using the architecture and the furnishings of the buildings to indicate what kind of space they are in.”
The four panels detail the role played by enslaved African Americans in the construction of the Wren Building, the history of the College during the Antebellum period, and the history of the College and African Americans during and after the Civil War.
“The charge was given to me to put [the Civil War memorial] in context, and the context of the Civil War is slavery,” Kern said. “So, it was an opportunity to move forward on longer term plans we had to make sure that our interpretation of the building here included William and Mary’s history with slavery.”
Compared to the 68 names on the Confederate plaque, the new Civil War memorial includes 390 names of alumni, students and faculty who fought as either Confederate or Union soldiers during the Civil War. Within these 390 names, all individuals actually fought in the Civil War as compared to the Confederate plaque which included people who joined the Confederate government and did not fight in the war. As marked by a “–U.S.” next to their names on the plaque, eight of these individuals from the College fought with the Union Army such as Lt. General Winfield Scott.
“The Welcome Center and the new panels provide a new context that is not necessarily there if you just see the names,” Allen said. “If you see [the Civil War memorial] in conjunction with the plaques, you have a broader picture of William and Mary and of slavery.”
The new memorial and panels are already being incorporated into tours of the Wren Building given by student members of the Spotswood Society.
“We have not actually had a new exhibit in the [information] center for I believe over a decade, so it was very much time for a new exhibit,” Spotswood Society member Thomas Voegelin ’19 said. “I’m glad we can have an exhibit talking about African-American history in the Wren building. … We have not devoted an exhibit that gives such a complete picture of African-American history at the college.”
The Lemon Project is currently working on establishing a new memorial to enslaved African Americans at the College. The memorial will include the names of enslaved peoples within the design and will be located on the historic campus where enslaved African Americans worked. The contest for the design has received both local and international applicants, both professional and non-professional.
“Hopefully, it won’t be something you walk by without noticing but become something as much a part of the school as the Wren building itself,” Allen said.
Both Kern and Allen saw the Civil War memorial as an important measure to commemorate all those associated with the College who fought in the war and an important exhibit piece to provide historical context for theCollege’s Civil War history, role in the institution of slavery, and complicit support for the Confederacy.
“I’m a historian,” Kern said. “I get a lot of intellectual gratification in the understanding why things are made to begin with and what decisions put them in the places that they are. To me as a historian, it’s just as interesting that it’s in an exhibit than in a hallway or somewhere else on campus.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the removal of the original plaque required a vote from the Board of Visitors.