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Williams: William & Mary has apologized for its history of slavery and discrimination. Here's why that matters.

Original Richmond Times Dispatch article

Terry L. Meyers began planting the seeds of discovery about a dozen years ago at the College of William & Mary, after learning that the Williamsburg campus housed a school for free and enslaved blacks — including two students enslaved by the college.

“Slavery to me had always been somewhat abstract,” Meyers, professor emeritus of English at W&M, recalled Monday. “When I came across the names of Adam and Fanny, it was almost like an electric shock: I worked for an institution that had owned people.”

Today, slavery is far less abstract at William & Mary.

Its board of visitors — at the behest of President Taylor Reveley — acknowledged Friday that W&M “enslaved people, exploited them and their labor, and perpetuated the legacies of racial discrimination,” and issued an apology.

The board also extended “The Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation,” established by the board in April 2009 to deepen the school’s understanding of its role in slavery and Jim Crow and its past treatment of African-Americans through research, courses, forums and social media.

Within the next two weeks, the project, named after a documented slave at W&M, will launch an international “idea competition” for a memorial to the enslaved, said Jody L. Allen, director of the Lemon Project and an assistant professor of history at William & Mary.

The memorial will be on the historic campus of the college, which was chartered in 1693.

“That was probably our biggest hurdle. Some people almost consider that holy ground,” Allen said.

This campus was where the enslaved lived and worked. Some buildings at the college were built by slaves.

“My point was, ‘What are we saying if they can’t be here? That they’re still not good enough for it?’ ... That was very important to us,” Allen said.

On Monday, Allen, who has headed the Lemon Project since its inception, was basking in the aftermath of the board of visitors’ action — a culmination of her group’s efforts, the scholarship of Meyers and the late Robert F. Engs, and a 2007 resolution by W&M’s Student Assembly urging the school to explore and make public its slave history and erect a memorial to the enslaved.

“I was pleased, and of course there’s still work to do. There are no laurels for us to rest on,” Allen said. “We are fully in the process of acknowledging those early people who worked and made life possible at William and Mary. So I think this is a great step.”

The W&M apology coincides with the 50th anniversary of the first three African-American students to reside on campus. And in delving into its links to slavery, the college joins the trailblazing ranks of Brown University, Georgetown University, the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, among others.

More recently, the name of Woodrow Wilson, a Staunton native and segregationist, has become problematic at Princeton, where he served as president before moving on to the White House. And Virginia Commonwealth University has embarked upon The Well Project to memorialize the remains of African-Americans whose bodies were used by medical students and then discarded in a well at the Medical College of Virginia more than a century ago.

“I think this is a burgeoning movement, but there are some schools still a little reluctant to look into their past,” said Meyers, a member of the Lemon Project’s steering committee. “It’s an awkward look because there’s a lot of ugliness to be turned over.

“You have to be interested in the full history, the ugly and bad as well as the noble.”

When you’re the nation’s second-oldest institution of higher learning behind Harvard, that’s a lot of history. Some of it doesn’t do the college proud. Thomas Roderick Dew used his position as William & Mary president as a platform for promoting and justifying slavery during the antebellum era.

Lemon, owned by W&M during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was not the college’s only slave. Research found that the college owned five to 10 slaves from the early 19th century to the onset of the Civil War and also may have hired slave laborers, according to an April 2010 article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Another W&M president, Lyon Gardiner Tyler, held views hardly more enlightened during his tenure in the late 19th and early 20th century. Tyler, the fourth son of former President John Tyler and author of “A Confederate Catechism,” a bible of the Lost Cause movement, “was a serious unreconstructed Confederate admirer” who thought no history book written by a Northerner should be in a Virginia classroom, Meyers said.

The school’s history department bears Tyler’s name as a result of an endowment from a son of Tyler’s, Harrison Ruffin Tyler. The department’s website credits Lyon G. Tyler with reviving W&M, even as it laments that his legacy “is particularly troubling in matters of race and slavery.”

“We are well aware that William & Mary and the department we belong to very likely would not exist today without the talents and the devotion that Lyon Gardiner Tyler brought to the leadership of both,” the website says. “At the same time, we — and our university — must acknowledge the weight of the past, something the board of visitors has most recently done in a resolution of apology for the college’s use of slave labor and racial discrimination.”

On the flip side, W&M — where Reveley established a Race and Race Relations Task force in 2015 — has renamed residence halls for Lemon, to commemorate the importance of African-Americans to the school’s history, and for the late Caroll Hardy, a former associate dean and dogged advocate for increased diversity on campus during the 1980s and ’90s.

Allen says the Lemon Project has helped foster connections with an African-American community in Williamsburg that retains a historic skepticism of the campus.

She earned her doctoral degree at William & Mary and her father was the pastor of a Williamsburg church, but as recently as 1995, she was still being warned about the campus.

“People were proud and supportive, but African-Americans said to me, ‘You need to be careful,’” she recalled. “There’s a strong cultural memory. Nothing ever happened to me related to William and Mary, but those people telling me to be careful remember when blacks couldn’t walk on campus. ...

“You can’t repair that in eight years, and luckily the administration at William and Mary knew that. There’s no quick fix when you’re talking about this 325-year history of abuse, mistreatment and neglect.”

In that way, these on-campus efforts to unearth and reconcile the past are a metaphor for an America where similar work remains to be done.

“You should care about this history,” Allen said. “I think since slavery ended, there’s been very little acknowledgment of these millions of people who built this country. ... This racial divide is never going to heal without this kind of work.”

mwilliams@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6815

Twitter: @RTDMPW