College to honor legacy of enslaved African-Americans through memorial

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COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

One year shy of a decade since since the official formation of the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation, the group’s Committee on Memorialization has released an open call for submissions for a memorial to enslaved people at the College of William and Mary.

The competition launched Aug. 28 and anyone may submit ideas until 5 p.m. Oct. 28. Yet, the call for submissions marks only the beginning of this process. The top three ideas, as selected by a jury composed of professionals from the field of museums, arts and history, and staff, faculty and undergraduate students, will be submitted to College President Katherine Rowe after a period of consideration.

“African-Americans have been vital to William & Mary since its earliest days. Even as they suffered under slavery, African-Americans helped establish the university and subsequently maintained it,” President Rowe said.

“This memorial is such an important project for our community,” Rowe said in a written statement. “African-Americans have been vital to William & Mary since its earliest days. Even as they suffered under slavery, African-Americans helped establish the university and subsequently maintained it. … A physical memorial to the enslaved will be a critical addition to our campus landscape. It will allow us to continue to learn of their contributions and remember them — for all time coming. I am thankful for work by so many that has gotten us to this point and I look forward to seeing the submitted concepts.”

In turn, Rowe will review each idea — which will be in the form of a plan and a 500-word description of the concept — and select one to be presented to the Board of Visitors at their meeting in February 2019. The creator of the submission ultimately shared with the BOV will receive $1,000. The second- and third-place idea submissions will receive $750 and $500, respectively. Based on the Board’s response to the president’s recommendation, a design process will then kick off for the memorial.

The competition calls for a memorial that engages with the College’s so-called Historic Campus, which is comprised of the space around the Wren Building, from College Corner to the beginning of the Sunken Garden. Notably, the Wren Building was built using slave labor and also served as the original slave quarters at the College. Historically, enslaved people also worked at the President’s House, the Brafferton, and in the kitchens and gardens surrounding them.

As of right now, the memorial does not have an expected completion date, as the timeline is dependent on the design that ends up being selected. The memorial development and construction will be funded by private donations.

The College selected nine jurors responsible for evaluating the design submissions. This panel includes an undergraduate student representative, Ivie Orobaton ’19, as well as professionals and alumnae with a connection to this area of research and scholarship and to the College in particular.

Lemon Project Director and history professor Jody Allen, along with art history professor Ed Pease, taught a course entitled Memorializing the Enslaved at William & Mary in fall 2014. As part of the course, students developed possible proposals for a memorial. Since 2014, a number of open community meetings have also been held to gather community input for a memorial, so this announcement arrives after a lengthy preliminary process.

“This is a very exciting time,” Allen said in a written statement. “We’ve been working toward this moment, which started with a course, for several years. This is another step in carrying out the Student Assembly resolution which was passed in 2007 and called on William & Mary to research its history as it relates to slavery, make that history public and establish a memorial to the enslaved.” 

One of the students who took this course, Timothy Courtney ’15, said that the memorial constitutes an important step in racial justice.

“Although no sculpture or structure can erase the horrors that occurred, incorporating the acknowledgement that is long overdue into the material culture of the William & Mary can start conversations that need to occur; ones that will lead us towards further understanding and reconciliation,” Courtney said in a written statement.

The Lemon Project was established in 2009, and the push for the creation of a memorial is only one of its projects aimed at reconciliation. The Lemon Project aims to address the history of slavery at the college holistically, and to conduct research as well as community outreach.   

Just earlier this year at the BOV meeting in April, former College President Taylor Reveley read an official resolution apologizing for the university’s role in slavery and segregation.

“The Board of Visitors acknowledges that William and Mary enslaved people, exploited them and their labor and perpetuated the legacies of racial discrimination,” the resolution stated. “The Board profoundly regrets these activities, apologizes for them, expresses its deep appreciation for the contributions made by the African-American members of its community to the vitality of William and Mary then, now, and for all time coming, and commits to continue our efforts to remedy the lingering effects of past injustices.”

The College is not the only institution looking for ways to grapple with and amend for its past. The University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors approved a design for a memorial for enslaved laborers this year.

UVA has contracted a design team and said they are hoping to complete the memorial by spring 2019. Additionally, Harvard Law School unveiled a plaque in September 2017 that memorializes the enslaved people whose labor enabled the founding of the school.

Marina Schlosser ’20, who has been involved with the Lemon Project for two years through a collaboration with Branch Out Alternative Breaks, said she believes a memorial to the enslaved would be valuable to campus.

“A memorial to the enslaved would add tremendous value to the campus in that it is a public apology and awareness that a wrong has been done in our past and now should be worked to be rectified,” Schlosser said in an email.

“A memorial to the enslaved would add tremendous value to the campus in that it is a public apology and awareness that a wrong has been done in our past and now should be worked to be rectified,” Schlosser said in an email. “We must remember the people who have built the campus, physically and metaphorically, and come to the realization that we should honor them and use the memorial as a stepping stone for the way to amend the relations between the College and African-American community.”

Another student, Kandance Kimber ’19 said she is constantly blown away by the work the Lemon Project does.

“I believe this memorial would add tremendous value considering that the slaves of the College were the ones who built and maintained the campus originally,” Kimber said. “Having an open call for submissions allows students and faculty to share their genuine perspectives on how the college has evolved over the duration of their time here on campus.”