College to unveil plaques honoring first women, African-American residential students April 19

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Where the plaques on the Sir Christopher Wren Building's piazza has been marked. The plaques will be unveiled April 19. COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

The Sir Christopher Wren Building piazza is adorned with plaques commemorating notable College of William and Mary firsts, from the first law school to the first honor code. At a public ceremony April 19, the College will unveil two new plaques honoring the university’s first female and African-American residential students.

One of these tablets will include the names of the College’s first three African-American residential students: Lynn Briley ’71, Karen Ely ’71 and Janet Brown Strafer ’71, M.Ed. ’77. These three women have been honored throughout the 2017-18 academic year and will be honored once more during May’s Commencement ceremony.

The other plaque will include the names of the first 24 female students who enrolled in 1918. Starting in the fall 2018 semester, the College will begin a year-long celebration of the 100th anniversary of having women in residence.

“To have plaques honoring the firsts residential African-American students and the first women in such a historical building on campus is a significant gesture toward the inclusion part of diversity and inclusion and hopefully will continue in other tangible ways,” English professor and 50th Commemoration Committee Chair Jacquelyn McLendon said in a press statement.

This committee which McLendon chairs, along with the committee organizing the 100th anniversary celebration, sponsored the plaques. 100th Commemoration Committee Co-Chair Jayne Barnard said that both groups sought to create physical objects to honor women and African Americans as part of the anniversary celebrations. Barnard also said that College President Taylor Reveley, who will retire June 30, 2018, supported the committees in creating physical monuments.

“This never would have happened without his support,” Barnard said in a press statement.

At the public unveiling ceremony, Reveley and McLendon will speak, along with Director of Alumnae Initiatives and 100th Committee Co-Chair Val Cushman and Executive Director of Historic Campus Susan Kern.

The unveiling ceremony will begin with the tolling of the Wren bell. A reception in the Sunken Garden will follow.

“When these two plaques are installed, the Wren Building at last will contain the names of women and people of color, and those names will remain there forever,” Barnard said.

Kern’s job has been to work with the committees to develop the content of the plaques and oversee their creation and installation.

“The committees have worked long and hard on tweaking the language for those plaques and getting something that sounds for the ages but also of the moment,” Kern said in a press statement.

In addition to the names of these students, both plaques will include the College’s official cypher and text honoring these first groups of women and African-American students. The plaque for the 50th anniversary will pay tribute to “those African-American students earlier denied full participation but who played a key role in the process of integration and who persevered through some of the most challenging moments in our nation’s history.”

The plaque for the 100th anniversary says that the first 24 women “paved the way for the more than 50,000 women who have followed them as students and alumnae. They also laid the foundation for the inclusion of women in the fabric of William & Mary.”

Similar to other plaques on the Wren Building’s piazza, the new plaques will be marble. The older plaques vary in size, but the two new plaques will be 42 inches wide, 60 inches tall and 3 centimeters thick. They will both be mounted on the piers facing the building.

Kern said that while some people questioned the decision to hang the plaques outside of the building instead of on the inside, she believes that the location is appropriate.

“The tablets that are inside are war memorials, so they’re marking people who are remembered because they died whereas out on the piazza we have tablets about William & Mary’s priorities and role in creating the U.S., so it’s really about people who are being remembered for what they did while they lived,” Kern said.

In addition to the names of these students, both plaques will include the College’s official cypher and text honoring these first groups of women and African-American students. The plaque for the 50th anniversary will pay tribute to “those African-American students earlier denied full participation but who played a key role in the process of integration and who persevered through some of the most challenging moments in our nation’s history.”