Community. As an anthropology doctoral student who studies African diaspora history and culture, I am amazed by how humans find ways to build community — even in the most difficult circumstances. My dissertation project centers around a small Ndognolese community — r
Seventy-six years later and six miles down the metaphorical road from where one of Virginia’s first Africans lived (Angela), construction of the original Sir Christopher Wren Building finally finished. A portion of the labor force that constructed and maintained the building were enslaved Africans. Enslaved labor also built the Brafferton (1723), the President’s House (1732), an observatory and various other buildings. The College of William and Mary both owned and leased enslaved Africans. In fact, “a small army of slaves maintained the College of William and Mary” prior to the Civil War. Some of these enslaved individuals and families lived in the town of Williamsburg. Some likely worshiped at the nearby Historic First Baptist Church of Williamsburg. They founded a community.
White enslavers did all they could to disrupt this community. The Lemon Project has yet to find evidence revealing the location of an enslaved burial ground on campus. Additionally, it is unlikely we will ever know details about the daily lives of many of the enslaved Africans who worked and lived on campus, since many of the College’s pre-Civil War documents have been lost, destroyed or stolen over the last 328 years. Similarly, due to racist recording practices, it’s extremely difficult to recover the names of those enslaved by the College in surviving early-campus documents. Instead, we get glimpses into the lives of the formerly enslaved when they briefly show up in campus records as “paid hire a Negro Wench two years” or “paid Mr. Allen hire of a Negro.” To date, the Lemon Project and other scholars have only recovered the names of 60 enslaved people which include Price, Winkfield, Daniell, Dick, Pompey, Adam, Nedd, Lucy, Kate, Nanny, Effy and Lemon.
The College also owned Nottoway Quarter, a working tobacco plantation purchased in 1718. Here, enslaved people worked 2,119 acres of tobacco. Their labor paid for white students’ scholarships. When the College was nearly destitute following the Revolutionary War, it and the Board of Visitors decided to take an active role in the sale of human persons. The sales of humans who formerly supported the College campus took place between 1777 and 1812.
Black Virginians’ state property tax payments have supported the College since 1906, but the student body remained segregated until 1956 when Hulon Willis enrolled in the education master’s program. The first Black undergraduate, Oscar Houser Blayton, was not permitted to enroll until 1963. Karen Ely, Lynn Briley and Janet Brown — the first African American students to live on campus — did not move into the basement of Jefferson Hall until 1967. They moved into an institution that had actively supported slavery and segregation without any community to support them. As Alton Coston III noted previously, Black undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff still encounter an implicit form of anti-Black racism on-campus. Like those who came before, some of us seek comfort, friendship and fellowship with members of the Black community on campus and the larger Williamsburg community, because campus sometimes feels as if it’s not for us.
Black community members at the College and our allies continue to hold it accountable for its lack of meaningful progress toward ending structural racism and other inequities in its community. Much of this intellectual labor remains unpaid. Some of us are growing weary as we hold our own departments and the university accountable. We still await meaningful reconciliation. The Lemon Project and the Memorial to the Enslaved are beginning steps in the right direction. But the College still has so much more work to do to reckon with its history and complicity in anti-Black racism on campus and within the larger community.
Chardé Reid is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology. Her doctoral research investigates the relationship between archaeology, heritage, memory, and contemporary African American identities and communities in Tidewater Virginia. She is the Arts & Sciences Graduate Student Association Senator, a member of Student Assembly’s Reparations Committee, a member of the Lemon Project Society, and a member of the Historic First Baptist Church of Williamsburg’s Nassau Street Steering Committee. Email Chardé at firstname.lastname@example.org.