College unveils plaques April 19 honoring first women, African-American students in residence

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In a ceremony April 19, the College of William and Mary unveiled two new plaques on the Sir Christopher Wren Building piazza. COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

Just days before College of William and Mary President Taylor Reveley read an official apology on behalf of the Board of Visitors for the College’s role in slavery and segregation, he unveiled two new plaques on the Sir Christopher Wren Building’s piazza. One plaque commemorates the College’s 24 first female students, the other commemorates Lynn Briley ’71, Karen Ely ’71 and Janet Brown Strafer ’71, M.Ed. ’77, the College’s first three African-American students in residence.

In a ceremony Thursday, April 19, Briley, Ely and Strafer — known as the Legacy 3 — and the descendants of the first 24 female students walked through the doors of the Wren Building, leading the rest of the crowd to see the plaques for the first time. Before this, Executive Director of Historic Campus Susan Kern, Chair of the 50th Anniversary Committee Jacquelyn McLendon and Co-Chair of the 100 Years of Coeducation Committee Valerie Cushman gave remarks.

Reveley said that he believed the day of the unveiling would be an important one for the College and that the addition of these new plaques shows the College’s commitment to acknowledging its past.

“By the plaques on the wall on the Wren just erected, we are recognizing the role of African Americans and of women over the vast sweep of William and Mary’s history,” Reveley said. “They played significant parts since the beginning. The parts they will play going forward will only continue to grow. Indeed, for William and Mary to thrive in this century and succeeding centuries, the parts played by African Americans and women at William and Mary must not just continue to grow. They must grow robustly, vibrantly. It’s good and long overdue that we are here today.”

Kern’s job was to work with McLendon and Cushman’s committees to develop the content of the plaques and to oversee their creation and installation.

In her speech, Kern said that in examining the history of the College, it is important to acknowledge that women, both free and enslaved, played a role in shaping the College before they were admitted as students. She also said that women were at the forefront of the movement to create some of the Wren Building’s other plaques through the formation of a regional preservation society.

“Like most other early American institutions, William and Mary has a long history entangled with slavery, Jim Crow and resistance to change,” Kern said. “Like other seeming bastions of male privilege, women underpinned the fabric here also. What these tablets do is mark the moment when William and Mary promised change, the moment when first white women, and, almost a half century later, African Americans, entered here under the assurance they could be students, scholars, professionals — in short, they could be peer and equal to the men served at this fountain of knowledge for its first 2 1/2 centuries.”

McLendon, who chairs one of the committees that sponsored the plaques, said that they represent a commitment to diversity and inclusion on behalf of the College.

She also said that it is important that these plaques are hung on the Wren Building, which to her is the soul of the College. She added that this symbolic connection is important because of the role that the concept of soul plays in African-American culture.

“It is particularly fitting that the names of the three women — Lynn Briley, Karen Ely and Janet Brown Strafer — who were the first African Americans to be fully integrated into the academic life of this university, along with a reference to earlier pioneers who had been denied full access but played a key role in the process of integration, be prominently and forever integrated into the soul of the College with the installation and dedication of this beautiful plaque,” McLendon said. “We will continue to build upon the richness of their legacy not just for this academic year, but for all time.”

When it was time for Cushman to give her remarks, she spoke about the history of how the first female students came to be at the College. She said that because of World War I, there was a shortage of students leading to a shortage of revenue from tuition, which caused the administration to consider admitting women as students. In February 1918, legislation passed allowing for co-education.

Cushman also read excerpts of articles published in the Virginia Gazette, The Flat Hat and the Virginia Informer from 1918, offering different opinions on this decision to move toward co-education.

“Those first 24 women all were pioneers and all allowed William and Mary to claim a spot as the first public or private formerly all-male institution in Virginia to admit women,” Cushman said. “Today, built on their shoulders, William and Mary has over 55,000 alumnae who are doctors, scholars, teachers, entrepreneurs, actors, members of Congress, world-class coaches and university presidents.”