There’s a certain prestige that comes with being the second oldest college in the country, but the College of William and Mary’s age also ties it to some unsavory things. English professor Terry Meyers spoke about his research Nov. 21 concerning a blemish on the College’s long history: slavery.
Meyers first became interested in the subject with his discovery of the Bray School, which may have been the first to educate free and enslaved blacks in the British colonies. The building in question currently houses the Reserved Officers’ Training Corps program.
“[The Bray School] made very concrete to me slavery and the College,” Meyers said.
Pro-slavery and discriminatory sentiments color a large portion of the College’s history. During the Civil War, students wanted to fly a secessionist flag over the Sir Christopher Wren Building, but the College’s president at the time did not allow it. In 1926, the Ku Klux Klan gave the College an American flag as a gift. The College’s president accepted the gift but criticized the Klan in his acceptance speech.
Meyers believes that written histories of the College have tried to sugarcoat parts of the College’s past that allude to its acceptance of slavery. The Nottoway Quarter, for instance, was a tobacco plantation owned by the College and maintained by slave labor.
“It’s not mentioned in any history of the College at all,” Meyers said. “[Profits from it were] used to pay scholarships for the less wealthy white [students].”
The fact that the College owned slaves was incorporated into The Owl, a humorous publication from 1854. A political cartoon depicted slaves in Williamsburg being treated well and laborers enduring terrible working conditions at Yale University.
“[The message was that it was] better to be a slave in Williamsburg than to be a worker in New Haven,” Meyers said.
Meyers explained how controversial the abolitionist movement was at the College. In 1791, the College granted Granville Sharp, a fervent abolitionist, an honorary degree.
“It would be like William and Mary giving an honorary degree to … I can’t think of somebody controversial enough,” Meyers said.
Thomas Jefferson, an alumnus of the College, was also wary of the controversy.
“[Abolition was] such a delicate subject,” Meyers said. When Jefferson wrote on it, he “talked about it in such indirect ways…that the editors didn’t know what he was talking about,” Meyers said.
None of Meyers’ findings are technically new. Most of his work has consisted of finding ambiguous sources that were already published and fitting all of the pieces together.
“It’s almost all published,” Meyers said. “[It’s] been known but just kept isolated.”
The talk attracted a respectable turnout of Meyers’ colleagues in the English Department, who praised the extent of his investigation.
“Professor Meyers has certainly done a ton of research,” English professor Hermine Pinson said. “[It is] definitely a good start.”
English professor Adam Potkay echoed this affirmation of the research.
“[It was] a very good, balanced historical survey of the evidence,” he said.
Meyers’ research overlaps with the Lemon Project, an initiative started in 2009 with the goal of rectifying damages done to African Americans throughout the College’s history. Meyers, however, does not believe that has yet been done.
“We have yet, I think, to go beyond acknowledging our complacence of slavery,” he said.