Virginia General Assembly creates new scholarship program for descendants of enslaved individuals

0
410
GRAPHIC BY CARMEN HONKER / THE FLAT HAT

Pending the signature of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, new legislation will require the College of William and Mary to offer some type of tangible benefit to at least one matriculating student who can demonstrate a historical connection to slavery starting during the 2022-23 academic year.

The Enslaved Ancestors College Access Scholarship and Memorial Program was formally passed by the Virginia Senate on a 22-17 vote the afternoon of Monday, Feb. 22. The legislation compels five public universities in the Commonwealth — Longwood University, the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, the Virginia Military Institute and the College — to identify and memorialize the enslaved individuals who built these institutions to the fullest extent possible.

The bill also requires that these universities provide some tangible benefit, such as a tuition scholarship, for individuals or communities within the Commonwealth who can prove a historical connection to slavery. According to the bill, this provision is designed to help individuals and communities who are still experiencing ramifications of slavery to “break out of the cycle of poverty.”

All five institutions were erected before the Civil War, and they all benefited directly and indirectly from slave labor. State Delegate Mike Mullin, a Democrat whose district covers Williamsburg and portions of James City County, York County and Newport News, said that slavery is intrinsically linked to the historical legacies of these universities, especially that of the College.

“Slavery was part of the College from the very beginning. We have records of the College not just enslaving people on its farms but getting into the slave trade — hundreds and hundreds of people over the course of the 18th century were bought and sold by the College right outside of Bruton Parish church. It was a regular part of the College’s life for more than half of its existence.”

Building off those historical legacies, the legislation requires the five universities to continue offering benefits through the College Access Scholarship Program until one of two scenarios have been met: each university must offer benefits for at least as long as the institution used enslaved individuals, or it must provide tangible benefits to more individual recipients than the number of enslaved individuals cumulatively used by the institution. For context, the College used enslaved individuals for 170 years, and the Lemon Project has uncovered evidence of at least 188 named and unnamed enslaved individuals used throughout the College’s history. This means that the College can choose to either offer benefits through the program until 2192 or provide benefits to at least 188 future students.

Longwood, UVA, VCU, VMI and the College have until July 1, 2022 to coordinate and establish guidelines with the State Council of Higher Education for implementing the scholarship program. The bill also strongly encourages all private colleges with similar historical legacies in the state to opt into the program. The bill prohibits universities from using state funds or tuition revenue to fund any tangible benefits, meaning that funding will likely have to originate from private sources or institutional endowments.

Mullin voted in favor of the scholarship program when it passed in the House of Delegates earlier this month. Mullin said that the bill was a small way of rectifying the injustices committed by Virginia’s oldest public institutions in their early history. He also said that the College has been a leader on this front relative to other colleges and universities in the state.

“It’s time that Virginia as a Commonwealth acknowledge that in a substantive way,” Mullin said. “While the College has been very good at it, we as a Commonwealth have been very bad. This is a small way of saying that someone whose ancestors were enslaved to build this institution are owed something by the institution.”

State Senator Monty Mason ’89, a fellow Democrat who represents Williamsburg in the upper chamber, voted yes on the bill yesterday. Republican State Senator Thomas Norment J.D. ’83, whose district includes portions of James City and York Counties, voted no.

The Virginia General Assembly’s decision to address slavery’s legacies within the state’s higher education system mirror existing trends in the College’s Student Assembly, which has conducted research into reparations at the university level since 2019. Ifeoma Ayika ’21, co-chair of SA’s Ad-Hoc Committee on Reparations, said that the College should interpret the scholarship program’s passage as a sign that the university needs to create its own reparations program to augment the provisions that will soon be enshrined in Virginia law.

“I would recommend the administration take the serious approach of listening to the experts, and the people who are doing this work. Currently, the Lemon Project houses the experts on how to carry out what is outlined in HB1980, and their work has been instrumental for so many Black people in Williamsburg. … If this bill passes, the administration should bring the opinions and ideas around both entities, and create a comprehensive reparations plan.”

“I would recommend the administration take the serious approach of listening to the experts, and the people who are doing this work,” Ayika said in an email. “Currently, the Lemon Project houses the experts on how to carry out what is outlined in HB1980, and their work has been instrumental for so many Black people in Williamsburg. … If this bill passes, the administration should bring the opinions and ideas around both entities, and create a comprehensive reparations plan.”

Ayika expressed her excitement with the creation of the new scholarship program, noting that it was a positive step forward for the Virginia’s ongoing reckoning with institutional racism.

“I couldn’t imagine the VA legislature making this legislation even when I was a freshman, and I am so excited to see further commitments to racial justice and equity come from our government,” Ayika said.

College spokesperson Suzanne Clavet declined to comment on the specifics of the scholarship program, instead pointing to the College’s existing efforts to address institutional relationships with slavery. These include The Lemon Project and the Mellon Foundation Grant, a $1 million grant given in 2019 to conduct community engagement initiatives and research into the legacies of slavery and institutional racism at the College.

“That legislative process is still underway,” Clavet said in an email. “We certainly track proposed legislation, but the university has a practice of not commenting until the legislative process is complete… William & Mary is dedicated to telling a fuller, more consequential account of our history.”

Correction: Delegate Mullin would like to correct his statements made regarding Bruton Parish Church and the number of enslaved individuals owned by the College. While Bruton Parish Church was a site where enslaved people were baptized, there is no evidence that they were bought and sold there. Additionally, the number of enslaved people bought and sold by the College is unknown. Last updated March 3 at 11:15 a.m.