The College of William and Mary hosted a panel discussion March 19 at Alan B. Miller Hall investigating the legacy of slavery throughout its 317-year history.
The symposium followed the Board of Visitors’ April 2009 resolution supporting the “Lemon Project,” an examination of slavery at the College advised by history professor Robert Engs. The project draws its name from a slave named Lemon, whom the College owned in the early eighteenth century.
“Our board did this, as they stated clearly in their resolution, in acknowledgement not only of the College’s ugly history in its owning of slaves and treatment of African-Americans in the Jim Crow era, but also in understanding of the lingering impacts of this history on present day relations between the College and its neighboring communities,” College Provost Michael R. Halleran said. “We also hope that William and Mary might become a model for other collegiate institutions — especially in the South — as they, too, seek to come to terms with [a] past tainted by racism, and face futures that must include all races equally.”
English and philosophy professor Terry Meyers began the discussion by criticizing College spokesman Brian Whitson’s comment to the Richmond-Times Dispatch. Whitson described the College’s anti-discrimination policy, saying the College had “a long history of inclusion.”
“I would say [it has been] probably 35 or 40 years that we’ve been working toward this actual diversity, actual inclusion, perhaps more recently than that,” Meyers said. “That’s about 10 percent of our history, so 90 percent of our history has been a history of exclusion and of bigotry against blacks and against women.”
Meyers mentioned that former College President Thomas Roderick Dew — who served from 1836-46 and is currently the only person buried beneath the Wren Chapel — was a strong supporter of slavery. Meyers argued that Dew’s burial at the Wren Chapel, after his remains were shipped back to the College from Paris to be re-interred in 1939, sent a signal to blacks that they were not welcome at the College.
“In the antebellum years, William and Mary was the pro-slavery think tank for the South,” Meyers said. “They generated all the theory, the economic accounts, the political accounts, the moral accounts that justified slavery.”
However, he noted there were bright spots in the College’s past. Former College President Benjamin S. Ewell served from 1855 to 1888, a period in which the College, devastated by the Civil War, struggled to survive with little funding. Ewell also served as a Confederate soldier and participated in the Battle of Williamsburg in 1862.
“After the war, he was a quick and strong proponent of suffrage for blacks, for education for blacks,” Meyers said. “William and Mary actually, unbeknownst until now, is one of the earliest, and I think maybe the earliest, university or college in the country to concern itself in an institutional way with the education of black children.” This education however, Meyers points out, was not particularly forward thinking.
Engs, who was on the panel, expressed surprise at the resentment some long-term residents directed toward the College.
“Any efforts to improve relations with the black community has to reach far beyond apologies for slavery and to include apologies about ongoing injustices and [enact] plans for remedies,” Engs said.
Engs disclosed that an American flag given to the College by the Ku Klux Klan flew at Confusion Corner until 1959, when it was moved to the Marshall-Wythe School of Law parking lot. However, he said the roots for present-day animosity extend centuries back.
Eighteenth-century College professor St. George Tucker, who taught law from 1801-1804 was the last faculty member to oppose slavery before the Civil War.
Engs also noted that while the College may have owned as few as five slaves during the Antebellum period, it purchased the labor of many more. Some slaves handling housekeeping belonged to the College steward, rather than the College itself. Some students brought their own slaves with them to college.
“It’s apparent that slavery and the hiring of slaves were an integral part of the operations of the College,” Engs said. “Slaves were also sold to help the College through economic hardships. That was part of the reason why the College had so few slaves by the 1850s. It sold them off to pay the bills.”
19 colleges and universities across the country are presently investigating the role of slavery in their pasts. 12 of these institutions are southern, and seven are public.
Ultimately, Meyers said the College can only come to terms with its racial history by admitting past mistakes.
“It takes a long time to overcome that,” he said. “So I think what we’re doing today is taking an honest look at ourselves or beginning an honest look at ourselves.”