Last month, the Working Group on Principles of Naming and Renaming submitted its final report to the College of William and Mary President Katherine Rowe and the Board of Visitors. Likewise, a statistically significant portion of the student community voiced disapproval of the current manner in which we commemorate notable alumni who held oppressive views on race, gender or sexuality. Maybe you are a member of the Board of Visitors, who must seriously consider how the choice they make now concerning this report will affect the College for decades to come. Or maybe you are a student who feels strongly about this issue one way or the other.
I am not here to tell you what to think about the issue. What I am here to do is to present you with notable alumni who exemplify the best of our diverse community and whose contributions merit recognition of their own in the form of building names, statues or the like on our campus. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is my hope that these figures at least earn their rightful recognition by the Board and universal acclamation from our student community, and that their inclusion fosters discussion in regard to future additions.
The first three alumni who, without question, deserve statue recognition are the Legacy Three. I am of course referring to Lynn Briley ‘71, Janet Brown Strafer ‘71 M.Ed. ‘77 and Karen Ely ‘71, the first three Black students to live in residence at the College. I invite you all to place yourselves in the shoes of these three young women as they first stepped foot on campus (Ely’s first step involved a racial slur written on the sidewalk) and question how much courage it must have taken to keep walking forward amidst all of the raised eyebrows and bigotry. For these three women, it was less than a lifetime ago that the thought of any Black woman coming to learn at the College was unthinkable, and yet their determination to receive the education they rightfully deserved shattered such a barrier and paved the way for thousands of future Black students. What does it say about implicit bias if we do not grant these women the commemoration they rightfully deserve?
Sports have also played a large role in the College’s history, and Tribe Athletics would no doubt benefit from honoring its greatest alumni. Why not include Arthur Matsu ‘27, the first Asian American (although not the first of Asian heritage) student at the College? Not only that, but he was also a star quarterback, the first Asian American captain of a college football team in the United States and the first Asian American to play in the NFL. I am not what one would call a sports person — not by any stretch of the imagination — but surely such accomplishments warrant no small measure of pride from our College, do they not?
The alumni I have proposed thus far are all relatively recent graduates in the College’s long history. One of the challenges in addressing how we name and rename spaces has been the College’s intractable ties with the American Revolution and all the warts of its time — but this does not necessarily have to be a bad thing. My next proposal, Robert Mursh of the Pamunkey Tribe, is actually a graduate of the Brafferton during its use as the Indian School at William and Mary. Mursh was also a veteran of the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War, bravely serving during battles including the Siege of Charleston and the Battle of Yorktown. He risked his life fighting for the Patriot cause, perhaps even more so while on the front lines of the war compared to the Founding Fathers whose presence on campus is ubiquitous. If our association with the Revolution is here to stay, why not include a diverse roster?
I could add far more to this list: Hulon Willis M.Ed. ‘56, the first Black student to attend the College; Mary Jo White ‘70, the first woman to serve as U.S. attorney in Manhattan; Stephanie Murphy ‘00, the first Vietnamese American woman elected to the U.S. Congress. While our College still has ways to go in order to achieve equal recognition, here is a rich tapestry of diversity we can weave if we seize the opportunity. Regardless of whether or not the current names and statues are subtracted, I find it very difficult to imagine why anyone would argue against the addition of these extraordinary alumni.
Lucas Harsche ’23 is majoring in History. In addition to The Flat Hat, Lucas is also the treasurer for both Swim Club and Active Minds, and plays violin in the Symphony Orchestra. Email Lucas at firstname.lastname@example.org.