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William & Mary approves design for memorial to those the school enslaved

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At least 180 individuals were enslaved by William & Mary from the college’s founding in 1693 until the Civil War. Some were owned by the institution for most or all of their lives. On Tuesday, the school approved a final design for a memorial to them and announced that it had secured all of the funding for the project.

The memorial, titled “Hearth,” resembles a large, brick fireplace and will include the names of those men, women and children known to have been enslaved by the university in Williamsburg, Va. The design, created by the architectural firm Baskervill, is based on a concept submitted by William Sendor, who graduated from the school in 2011.

Sixteen feet wide, 45 feet long and 20 feet high and located on the south side of the Wren Building — the oldest building on campus — the memorial is intended as a gathering place for students and visitors to reflect on the school’s past.

“The final concept design has the gravitas we sought. It gives dignity and presence to those who were enslaved by William & Mary and whose labor built the university — without romanticizing that painful history,” President Katherine A. Rowe said in a statement. “In the process of refining the design, we recognized that the memorial site will reimagine the Jamestown Road entrance to campus. Both symbolically and actually, the first step for many on campus will be through this more forthright telling of our history.”

Work on the memorial, which will cost $2 million, is expected to begin early next year and be completed by October 2021.

Sendor, whose entry was one of more than 80 designs submitted for the memorial, told The Washington Post last year that he created his hearth design because it brought people together and because he was inspired “to figuratively illuminate the forgotten history and memory of these enslaved people who sacrificed and contributed immeasurably to William & Mary for over half of the College’s history, and then to physically illuminate a shared space for community gathering and reflection for generations to come.”

The push for a memorial, and for William & Mary to more closely examine its history of slavery, began in 2007 as an effort by student leaders to demand acknowledgment and accountability. Two years later, the school created the Lemon Project, named after a man who had been enslaved at the school, to research and report on William & Mary’s legacy of slavery.

In a statement Tuesday, Jody Allen, director of the Lemon Project and assistant professor of history, acknowledged the 2007 resolution by former students Tiseme Zegeye, Richael Faithful and Justin Reid that led to the memorial and said she hoped “it inspires current Student Assembly senators to move their ideas forward despite not being able to imagine the outcome.”

Their work, she said, led to “the uncovering of a more complete history of this 327-year-old institution, and soon a memorial to those known and unknown African Americans who played a vital role in the establishment and maintenance of the university.

“The women, children and men who toiled here without remuneration for 172 years will not be forgotten again. Indeed, this grand and beautiful addition to the campus will be a constant reminder of their lives and their contribution to this community.”

Reid, who is now director of community initiatives at Virginia Humanities, said he was excited to learn about the final approval for the memorial and believes it will be a powerful addition to the campus that can’t be overlooked and will have resonance today.

“This isn’t a memorial just to the enslaved people at William & Mary,” he said. “To me, it’s a memorial to their legacy, to what they persevered through and what their descendants persevered through and accomplished.”

Susan Svrluga contributed to this report.