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Missing memorials

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February 2, 2016

11:37 AM

Following the Thomas Jefferson sticky notes demonstration, it has recently become popular to say that our school’s reverence for its great intellectuals whitewashes their wrongdoings. This has always seemed a bit naive, as it ignores both how and why we honor them — not as infallible idols, but as fellow human beings whose radical ideas and actions remain influential. So while I’m not unsettled by the presence of some statues, the lack of others strikes me as quite strange.

The College of William and Mary makes a very profound effort to laud every donor, and to leave no name unmentioned if it contributed to the well-being of our institution. This is done in many ways, and with the names of buildings, the various effigies of our great alumni and the countless plaques on every brick donated to the school, it would appear that not a stone has been left unturned. Except in the case of the stones placed by the African slaves.

Each class’s donations to the school are carved into the walkways around the Sunken Garden, donors’ names are inscribed on various buildings, plaques and classrooms, yet the slaves receive no recognition, no dignity.

The Lemon Project deserves admiration and praise for its efforts in documenting the College’s relationship with slavery. But besides this, mention of the contributions of the slaves to the college has been relegated to a rather hard-to-access Swem wiki article. There is not one mention of them on Wikipedia, nor in the brief history of the College online, nor in physical form on campus, even though their contributions have been well-documented. Each class’s donations to the school are carved into the walkways around the Sunken Garden, donors’ names are inscribed on various buildings, plaques and classrooms, yet the slaves receive no recognition, no dignity.

Oddly enough, dignity is often used to justify the lack of a slave memorial, with many saying that it would tarnish the reputation and legacy of both the school and its notable alumni. But is it just to memorialize alumni and donors without recognizing the contributions of the slaves who built and maintained our school?

Would a memorial to those subjected to kidnapping, exploitation and forced labor (all to the past and future benefit of the college) really poison this legacy?

Responses to that question generally follow in one of two ways. The first is that statues and memorials are usually given by donors and not commissioned by the school. This completely avoids the point at issue: the slaves themselves were the “donors” (an understatement, I know), and their unpaid labor and stolen capital is within every brick they placed on our school grounds. Can anyone with a clear conscience say that this stolen life, liberty and labor doesn’t merit greater recognition than writing a check?

The second point that is inevitably made simply restates the original objection, expressing concern for the reputation of the school and its alumni. I ask again: Would a memorial to those subjected to kidnapping, exploitation and forced labor (all to the past and future benefit of the college) really poison this legacy? The question seems to answer itself.

Physical representation (such as a statue or memorial) serves a different purpose – it evokes the visceral and the personal, allowing the present to be in the presence of the past.

The Lemon Project and similar research efforts are indispensable in maintaining the living identity of the College as an institution of progress. However, there is also value in having a tangible, physical representation of something. If documentation alone was a sufficient reminder of our legacy, nothing would be more superfluous than statues of Jefferson and his contemporaries, some of the most well-documented figures of history. Physical representation (such as a statue or memorial) serves a different purpose – it evokes the visceral and the personal, allowing the present to be in the presence of the past.

Email Thomas Briggs at [email protected]

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  • Thomas Briggs