Yellow banners have been flying at the College of William and Mary announcing Charter Day 2011, celebrating the College’s 318th birthday.
Charter Day was first celebrated at the College on February 8, 1937 under President John Bryan and was originally known as Founders’ Day. The inaugural ceremony included an academic procession of faculty and students donning academic regalia. The Royal Charter was read, the choir sang “God Save the King” and Wesley Frank Craven, a history professor from New York University, spoke on the history of the College’s founding.
However, the document that was read at the 1937 ceremony was not the College’s original founding document. The first twelve-page Royal Charter, brought over from England by the Rev. James Blair in 1693, was thought to be lost during the American Revolution.
“We don’t know what really happened,” University Archivist and Director of the Special Collections Research Center Amy Schindler said. “There’s no solid evidence as to what really happened.”
Many stories surround the first Charter’s disappearance. A popular story tells of a Russian trader by the name of Fedor Karzhavin who took the document back to his home country.
“It’s a very romantic story, and people love this kind of story,” Schindler said. “The reality is probably more mundane. With the war going on at the time, I think it just got lost.”
Since the first ceremony in 1937, the Charter Day ceremony has changed very little.
“It’s been the same as I can remember for a very long time,” Vice President for Student Affairs Ginger Ambler ’88 Ph.D. ’06 said in an e-mail. “I sang in the W&M choir, so I was at Charter Day every year.”
In another tradition, a guest speaker is brought in to present a Charter Day address. U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor J.D. ’88 is scheduled to deliver remarks at Friday’s ceremony in William and Mary Hall. Other notable speakers have also given Charter Day addresses, including former Chief Justice Warren Burger, Prince Charles of the United Kingdom, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Traditionally, academic and alumni awards are also presented at the Charter Day ceremony. This year, the Jefferson Award is being awarded to law professor Jayne Barnard, while chemistry professor Elizabeth Harbon is receiving the Thomas Jefferson teaching award.
“The tradition was, in the past, before the faculty was notified that they were officially receiving the Jefferson award, their students would present them with nickels as a kind of hint that they had been chosen,” Ambler said. “We’ve been encouraging students this year to give out nickels. One of the things we’ve been trying to do is resurrect these really special traditions.”
In recent years, the College has attempted to make Charter Day more of a campus-wide celebration. Instead of being held on Saturday morning as in past years, the 2011 ceremony will be held Friday afternoon to attract the attendance of students, faculty and staff on campus.
“To truly celebrate the College’s birthday, we wanted to make sure that this event was held at a time and in a manner that would encourage the whole campus to participate,” Ambler said.
Other new traditions are being started this year, including the distribution of free commemorative pins, a new location at William and Mary Hall and the inaugural Charter Day concert, featuring hip hop group the Roots.
“I hope it will continue. I hope it will grow. I hope the college campus really comes together to celebrate,” Ambler said. “We have a lot to be proud of and this is when it will all come together.”