Examining Highland’s legacy: College’s ownership of James Monroe’s Highland sparks community discourse

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COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

James Monroe’s Highland, the former plantation where the country’s fifth president lived and enslaved as many as 250 individuals, has become the center of debate regarding the College of William and Mary’s history with slavery. Highland, categorized as a present-day historic site, is located in Albemarle, Va. and has been owned and operated by the College since 1974.  

After the murder of George Floyd in May and the growing national attention towards the Black Lives Matter Movement, students within the community began to reexamine the College’s relationship with racial injustice. As a result, questions were raised on how the College continues to uphold or disavow its racist past. The College’s support for Highland has now become a contentious debate about what role, if any, the College should play in running a historic plantation.  

The recent controversy surrounding Highland began when Salli Sanfo ’22 created a petition in May titled “W&M: Stop Bankrolling a Plantation, Especially with Student Funds.” The petition gained 949 supporters before it was closed. In the petition, Sanfo argued that Highland is a for-profit plantation that holds weddings, events and tours, and pointed out how Highland operates from the College’s budget. She claimed the plantation loses upwards of $400,000 a year while minimizing slavery and glorifying Monroe. 

“Does William and Mary actually care about its Black students?” the petition asked. “Or any of their students? Because it is very hard to see when over half the buildings on campus are named after slave owners and the school is still paying over half a million dollars a year to maintain a for-profit plantation. It is very hard to see when our campus chooses to funnel large amounts of money every year that could be used for student improvement to fund a plantation that doesn’t return on its monetary investments.” 

Sanfo expressed her thoughts on the complexities behind the College owning Highland. She described the need for increased transparency with both the administration and the historic site.   

“I personally feel that Highland can be an asset to the school as a historical space, I just feel like students aren’t told that much about it — there’s not much transparency there,” Sanfo said. “I understood both sides of it. I get why people would want to keep it and protect it — that’s your prerogative. I just wanted to increase transparency between William and Mary and Highland and know exactly where all these funds are going. I don’t have any strong feelings towards anyone about it, honestly.” 

In response to the claims made in the petition, another group of students Helena Boyd 23, Olivia Gebreamlack ’23, John Ezzard ’23 and Alton Coston III ’23 — found the petition to be harmful. The group asserted that the petition did not show the full picture of Highland’s work in addressing its history and role in supporting institutions of slavery. Ever since, the group has been organizing via group chats and FaceTime calls.  

At the beginning of the summer, the students met with members of both Highland and the College’s administration to discuss how the College should proceed with the future of the site. Coston said that the group has met with Highland Executive Director Sara Bon-Harper and seeks to work with the Lemon Project in the future. The group has planned an Oct. 29 Lemon Project Porch Talk to discuss Highland. At one point, Sanfo was also involved in the group’s conversations. However, Sanfo decided to remove herself from the group’s work.  

“I believe we’re past the initial phases regarding what needs to be done regarding transparency of Highland to students — that’s a given,” Coston said. “Everyone understands that there needs to be more transparency to truly educate and inform students of Highland’s role regarding the enslavement of Black and Brown students. Now, we’re tackling the issue of transparency rather than just addressing that that is an issue. We’ve passed the initial phases of addressing what the issue was — we’re now tackling the problem by doing more community-oriented events such as the Porch Talk.” 

“I believe we’re past the initial phases regarding what needs to be done regarding transparency of Highland to students — that’s a given,” Coston said. “Everyone understands that there needs to be more transparency to truly educate and inform students of Highland’s role regarding the enslavement of Black and Brown students. Now, we’re tackling the issue of transparency rather than just addressing that that is an issue. We’ve passed the initial phases of addressing what the issue was — we’re now tackling the problem by doing more community-oriented events such as the Porch Talk.” 

Highland was willed to the College, Monroe’s alma mater, in 1974 by philanthropist Jay Winston Johns. Known as Ash-Lawn Highland until 2016, the property is now a working farm and museum that includes a guest house, farmhouse, and the quarters of the enslaved. Various archaeological projects have uncovered remains of a larger building that presumably housed the Monroes. Highland’s operations are supported in majority by the College, along with a number of private donors and forms of revenue, such as ticket sales and event hosting.  

According to Highland’s website, Monroe enslaved dozens of individuals at a time while simultaneously calling for the abolition of slavery.  

“More importantly, we recognize that the history of the United States is profoundly connected to the institution of slavery,” the Highland website says. “It was enslaved labor that allowed the economic development of the new nation, most notably for Highland, in its agriculture. The legacies of slavery are present in our communities today, and understanding the nation’s fraught past is one way to address today’s issues. The perspectives of enslaved men and women are as crucial to understanding the United States as are those of U.S. Presidents. At Highland we strive to represent a multivocal history, one in which many voices combine to tell one set of stories.” 

Bon-Harper described the goals of Highland as a historic site and explained how they are working to intertwine historic research and descendant engagement.  

“The way I see our meaning and our main purpose now is to combine three facets or areas of operation in a way that makes it a unique historic site,”  Bon-Harper said. “One, of course, is that public teaching … we are pushing a bit on what the public is learning, we are working on an inclusive history that really looks as Highland as a property, in the threads of US history, and the people that go through Highland. One part is the academic piece, which involved research and William and Mary students, hopefully in an increasing number … for research on site in various kinds, not just historic … The third is the descendant engagement which kind of undergirds the practice of our operation. This means that descendants contribute to the histories that are told about Highland and how they’re told.” 

Highland is partially led by a council of descendant advisors, which is composed of 10 descendants of individuals who were enslaved by Monroe at Highland. The council is supported by a grant to the College from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. According to Highland’s website, the descendant advisory council is given “shared authority” on site reinterpretation. Currently, all members of the Highland executive staff are white. 

The council was formed to ensure that Highland’s practices and decisions were accounting for the voices and stories of the enslaved people who were forced to spend their lives at the plantation. The council offers advice, opinions and recommendations for how Highland can work to tell a complete story of all the people it was home to: the Monroes, the known enslaved peoples and any other stories they have yet to discover.  

Member of the Council of Descendants Jennifer Stacy spoke on her role with the council and what motivates her to participate in this group. Stacy described how she believes she can uplift the voices of the enslaved people, including her own ancestors who were at Highland.  

“History is told in a one-sided way in our country,” Stacy said. “I stay involved to help give a voice to the voiceless. The enslaved there had no voice, they had no hope of ever getting their story out or ever being recognized, they were pretty much invisible. This brings them to the forefront, and gives them a say.” 

A major point of contention between community members of the College has been on the appropriateness and implications of having private events such as weddings and celebrations take place at the historic site. Some students, including Sanfo, have raised concerns that these events ignore or distract from Highland’s status as a plantation that once was home to enslaved individuals. Many of these arguments have been seen within the widely used Facebook Group “Swampy Memes for Twampy Teens.” Sanfo spoke on the connotations of hosting events like these in former locations of slavery. 

“The weddings section of Highland rubbed me wrong,” Sanfo said. “I think we have to talk about how we romanticize history in this country.” 

College spokeswoman Suzanne Clavet said that Highland hosts events such as weddings to support itself financially. 

“It’s important to note that Highland contributes to its own operating cost through grants, endowments and revenue generated by the property as a museum and event site,” Clavet said. 

Boyd said that she has discussed with Bon-Harper the issue of balancing education and entertainment. 

“The visitor base for Highland tends to be an older, more conservative audience,” Boyd said. “They have to cater to them and still explain the full story and explain the anger and injustice and revolutionary ideas without angering them and making them not come back. She explained to us that it’s a difficult balance to strike. They don’t want to drive away their main audience, but they still want to educate them.” 

Bon-Harper described how she believes the use of the property for events is done respectfully, a belief she said is also shared by the descendant council. 

“The criticism of holding celebratory private events at historic sites in landscapes of slavery has gotten lots of attention lately, and I understand that criticisms,” Bon-Harper said. “In consultation with our council of descendant advisors Highland has decided that it is appropriate for Highland to continue that practice. It’s a respectful practice, it’s not antebellum themed events happening in the historic structures, it’s respectful, it’s an appropriate way we feel, to invite people to appreciate a historic site for its natural beauty.”  

Stacy also shared her own thoughts on whether or not it is appropriate to hold private events on land which formerly housed hundreds of enslaved people.  

“I think they are misinformed, and when I say misinformed, it’s not in a disrespectful way,” Stacy said.  “We all have our own minds, we all have our own opinions. But the one thing that’s important is before you form an opinion do your research, before you act on your opinion do your research, and before you let others’ opinions influence do your own research, and in the end do your own thinking … The fact that there is this beautiful property that sits in Albemarle count., and it has these beautiful spaces that people have the opportunity to use as a wedding venue or not, they have a choice, is something that I believe is separate from the work that’s going on there … A majority of people know slavery existed and were in the South so its almost like do the math. However, it is not the complete story that is going on at Highland. I think about the educational value about the relationship between Highland and William and Mary, it is a wonderful opportunity for the students to learn about this part of history, that is in the middle of the culture at William and Mary. James Monroe went there, yes, he owned slaves, but that’s not his whole story. Neither is the fact I’m a descendant of the enslaved, their story didn’t end there either — I’m evidence of that.” 

Sanfo said that she doesn’t mind that students have criticized her petition but also added that it was her petition and the resulting student engagement and conversation that led to the creation of the student group and more transparency between Highland and the College Campus.  

“At the end of the day, students have the right to disagree with me if they want to,” Sanfo said. “They can do their own research … I want to make it clear — I don’t think the school should get rid of Highland. As a historical place, it can be very helpful. I told Director Bon Harper that and I apologized for the stress that this petition caused them. I meant that sincerely. However, I do think that when it comes to talking about these issues, I wish admin would do more in general. I think this is a much bigger issue than just one section of the school. It needs to actually have a discussion and analyze why we’re just talking about this now. Because the reality is that the work the students are doing is a reaction to the petition. If the petition had never been written, this wouldn’t be happening right now. I think it’s very important to acknowledge that if this had not been written, they wouldn’t be pushing to have this transparency. Students have to push for all these things for them [admin] to talk about them. All the issues I wrote about should have been brought up by admin themselves.” 

The group of students have criticized Sanfo’s petition for spreading misinformation about Highland. 

“It’s a sensitive subject, so when you’re dealing with sensitive topics as such, you want to be as transparent and as truthful as possible to prevent any misleading information being spread to a large population,” Coston said. “That’s the reason I joined. The particulars of the petition that were concerning were the skewed and subjective view of things. Rather than viewing things objectively, there were multiple instances that looked at things from a very slated and opinionated point of view, which is fine. However, when you put those things on a petition that you ultimately send out to hundreds of thousands of people, it’s spreading false information which could be detrimental to Highland and William and Mary.” 

Though Sanfo has since closed the petition, she still believes that Highland and the College both need to do more to confront their pasts.  

“This is bigger than the William and Mary student body,” Sanfo said. “A lot of people have very personal opinions on this topic. No amount of committee can really touch that — it’s way bigger than we’re all thinking. I am optimistic — I think this can lead to a much better rapport between students, Highland, and the administration. At the end of the day, higher up admin knew about this and they knew it exists, why are they not speaking on it? It needs to be more of a three-dimensional conversation that we’re having here.” 

In discussing Highland itself, there is a discrepancy as to what it should be called. On its website, Highland is referred to as the “home of James Monroe.” In past publications by the College, it is called a “historic homestead” or an “estate,” but only rarely a plantation.  

Bon-Harper spoke on the implications of referring to Highland as a plantation in the present day, and how they are working to acknowledge the history of the site, and grow from it.  

“Highland was a plantation,” Bon-Harper said. “Starting from a place of truth, you acknowledge, yes it was a plantation, yes Monroe was an enslaver, and you fully explore that then you move forward into the future. This of course was part of perhaps the imprecision of the student petition this summer. William and Mary is not funding a plantation. They’re funding a historic site that explores a historic plantation, and the legacies of those events moving into the future. There’s a little bit of a nuance in understanding yes it was a plantation, but we were not growing cotton.” 

Sanfo argues that Highland should be recognized and called for what it actually was. Sanfo described how refraining from calling it a plantation can minimize the legitimacy of the atrocities that took place there.  

“I think it’s important that we don’t minimize certain aspects of history just because they make us uncomfortable,” Sanfo said. “A plantation is a plantation. Does it not function in that manner anymore? Yes. But it’s beginning was as a plantation. The man who owned it owned slaves. It’s a part of his legacy and his history. You have to tackle that aspect of it. By saying it’s not a plantation, not only are you changing the way we think about Highland, but also the way we think about Monroe as a person. He was a slave owner and he did own people at the end of the day.” 

“I think it’s important that we don’t minimize certain aspects of history just because they make us uncomfortable,” Sanfo said. “A plantation is a plantation. Does it not function in that manner anymore? Yes. But it’s beginning was as a plantation. The man who owned it owned slaves. It’s a part of his legacy and his history. You have to tackle that aspect of it. By saying it’s not a plantation, not only are you changing the way we think about Highland, but also the way we think about Monroe as a person. He was a slave owner and he did own people at the end of the day.” 

An issue that both the student group and Sanfo agree upon is the fact that Highland operates under the College’s auxiliary budget. The auxiliary budget includes services such as student housing, food services, student unions and athletics. Highland’s budget hovers around $1 million, roughly one percent of the total auxiliary budget. Highland was placed under the auxiliary budget as a transitional entity, but to date, no formal funding plan has been executed. Meanwhile, Highland remains the misfit of the auxiliary budget, being quite dissimilar from the rest of the services.  

Clavet emphasized that because Highland generates a portion of its revenue, it is considered under the auxiliary budget and is only partially supported by the College. She said that funds from auxiliary fund balances are used for personnel and general operational support. 

“The university regularly reviews all departmental budgets and funding sources, including opportunities to increase external funding (endowments and grants),” Clavet said. “William & Mary will begin a process of strategic planning for Highland starting later this month. Led by the Vice Provost for Academic and Faculty Affairs, strategic planning will consider both mission and sustainability.” 

Boyd argued that Highland should not remain on the auxiliary budget and indicated that the College seeks to find a more permanent budgetary solution. She also said that while the budget itself is an issue, the bigger issue is that Highland is not openly communicated about by the College. 

“They’re going to do something to get Highland off the auxiliary budget so that it functions more like what it is because right now it’s this strange thing,” Boyd said. “It’s not an auxiliary service — it’s all the way in Charlottesville and students don’t know about it. I think it’s important that it gets off the auxiliary budget. The most important thing, however, is transparency. I would love to see William and Mary publish more stuff about it on the university website. I would love to see more public and clear collaboration with the Lemon Project. I would love to see it being talked about in the newsletters we get in our email. I would love to see family weekend sessions about it, orientation sessions about it, school-sponsored trips to Highland. Because this is a wonderful asset that the College should be proud of.” 

Going forward, the student group hopes to launch student-run social media accounts to increase transparency about Highland and reach students in their daily lives.  

“Helena, Olivia, John and I are starting social media accounts to bridge the gap between Highland and the students,” Coston said. “Although we would have consultation and conversation with Highland regarding what we can post, that account will be run by us for the students.” 

Coston, who visited Highland over the summer, wants Highland to be introduced to students when they are incoming freshmen. He hopes to see expanded student research opportunities and increased student visits to Highland.  

“The more money Highland can get for student research endeavors as opposed to just operations, the better,” Coston said. “I had an opportunity to go to Highland myself the more we can do that for students and dispel any false narratives that have been placed in their heads by any misinformation, that’s amazing as well.” 

In recent years Highland’s research has focused on uncovering the archeological truth of the property. This work has correctly established where James Monroe’s actual home once stood, where the guest house currently is, and where the enslaved people were forcefully housed. However, the team at Highland is hoping to continue to expand its research and work to address not only archaeological factors, but environmental, historical, and genealogical. There is a current emphasis on preserving oral history of the descendants of the enslaved who lived at Highland, and the council hopes to establish a database for anyone to come examine if their ancestral history has ties to Highland. However, the large focus is still directed towards archaeological work and the life of James Monroe.  

In its 2019 report, The Lemon Project recommended that the College increase consistent research capacity at Highland. The report noted that, at the time, Highland had no staff whose primary role was research. Though the recommendation’s timeline was listed as “ongoing,” the robust interaction between the College’s main campus and Highland that the Lemond Project called for has not yet been fully realized. The Lemon Project’s recommendation that descendant communities be engaged, however, has seen more progress. 

“William & Mary should assist Highland in actively seeking a diverse group of advisors in envisioning the museum experience and implementing that vision,” the report said. “This should include museum professionals, public historians, and university stakeholders whose perspectives ensure that research and interpretation at Highland are inclusive and multivocal. Descendant communities should also be engaged in the visioning and implementation as stakeholders in the organization.” 

Stacy spoke on how this ancestral research and emphasis on oral history is not only important to her and her family’s understanding of their past, but how it also provides groundwork for similar spaces and sites to do the same.  

“As ugly as slavery was, it is the beginning of my family’s story here in America that we know about,” Stacy said. “That’s where the Monroe’s started, with James Monroe, that’s the most we have right now. To have that, and to have the story told in an authentic way, to have the world know about it, that’d be wonderful. Not to mention the fact that we are living in a very pivotal time right now, the dialogue that we are having with Highland, we’re hoping that that kind ofa sets a model for the rest of the country. Be bold, discuss this, listen, record, respect and project the whole story, not just the part that has been told for too long.”  

“As ugly as slavery was, it is the beginning of my family’s story here in America that we know about,” Stacy said. “That’s where the Monroe’s started, with James Monroe, that’s the most we have right now. To have that, and to have the story told in an authentic way, to have the world know about it, that’d be wonderful. Not to mention the fact that we are living in a very pivotal time right now, the dialogue that we are having with Highland, we’re hoping that that kind ofa sets a model for the rest of the country. Be bold, discuss this, listen, record, respect and project the whole story, not just the part that has been told for too long.”  

Coston also noted that the descendants were able to speak recently to the Board of Visitors, particularly from George Monroe, one of the descendants of Highland. 

“I’m truly elated that the descendant advisory committee had the opportunity to speak in front of the board and tell their truths,” Coston said. “That was one thing that George has been pressing upon the fact that he did not have the opportunity to speak to the board, the very people who come up with the budget, regarding what Highland does and does not receive and speak his truth as a Black man who also happens to be a descendant of James Monroe, a person who enslaved the people who looked like him. The complexity behind that and the fact that he got to speak directly to the board is a testament to just how much traction and power the student voice has.” 

Stacy described what she believes is the most important and positive impact the current work at Highland can have. She spoke on her hope for unheard voices to be uplifted, and why it is crucial to recognize them.  

“If you open your mind and also do some research to understand what’s going on between Highland and the descendant community it has potential to change the world,” Stacy said. “In the way the world deals with descendant communities and gets the information out that many descendant communities have been holding in their families and not sharing because either no one wanted to know, or no one knew there was a story to know.Now is the time to share these stories so that our generations can understand, they can understand there was a lot more going on than the limited story that we’ve been told. There is more to tell, and there’s so much rich history here, and so many opportunities to give voices to the voiceless and to may help this become part of the national conversation we should be having about slavery, to heal. Because if we don’t heal we will continue to have moments like we have had since this spring. If you don’t know your history, you are destined to repeat it.”