Unpacking the past: Student-run committee investigates the College’s early histories


Walking around the College of William and Mary’s storied campus, it’s hard to miss the abundance of statues and distinctly-named buildings. The College’s history is an unmistakable pull factor for many prospective students who dream of walking the same brick steps as one of America’s founding fathers or participating in centuries-old traditions in Colonial Williamsburg. To come to the College is to step back into a distinctly American past — or as close as one can get.

However, this past, which continues to pervade the physical landscape of the College through various monuments, is not always welcoming and inclusive to all who come to the College, particularly students who are Black, Indigenous or People of Color. Especially in recent years, there has been much public discourse about how the College can better reckon with its history of enslavement and who it chooses to commemorate in its statues and buildings.

Leading this discourse from a student-facing perspective is the Committee for Contextualizing Landmarks and Iconography, an undergraduate-ran committee housed under Student Assembly and spearheaded by Co-Chairs Lorielle Bouldin ’23 and Fatoumata Sissoko ’24, Public Relations Chair Julian Allison ’23 and Research Chair Annabelle Midden ’24. CCL&I aims to change the historical narratives surrounding the figures commemorated by the College by detailing both their accomplishments and their complicity in enslavement — both the good and the bad — through meticulous research. 

“We’re committed to conducting thorough research — specifically research on campus landmarks and iconography, as it says in the title — and communicating that,” Sissoko said. “But most of it is to basically better understand these monuments, people on campus and what they signify within a historical context and also contemporarily what their purposes are.” 

CCL&I’s executive board, along with several other dedicated committee members, continue a mission initially begun by Shane Moran ’21 in the spring of 2020. 

“[Moran] wanted to create an organization focused on providing context to all of these statues, especially as protests were happening and a lot of conversations were being had about who is being represented and celebrated on this campus,” Bouldin said. 

To carry on Moran’s legacy, current CCL&I members seek to raise awareness of the lesser known history of the College that has not fully been contended with.

“I think most people briefly know our campus’ history and William & Mary’s involvement in slavery, but … I don’t think many people realize that William & Mary quite literally was involved in the genocide of indigenous peoples, like the very foundings of this school is imbued within some of the most horrendous actions known to humankind,” Sissoko said. 

However, executive board members make clear that the work they do is not meant to be oppositional or unduly critical of the College, noting that their efforts are marked by duality as they strive to create a more holistic understanding of the people that the College commemorates and pay homage to the lives that were taken or brutalized by systems that the College supported. 

Something I talked about in my Blair piece was that he gets a lot of credit for founding William & Mary — which he did, he used his power to found William & Mary — but like, William & Mary was built brick by brick by black people, by enslaved people,” Allison said in reference to a research essay he authored about James Blair. “Black people have been here this whole time. Native American people have been here this whole time. People of color, women of color — they’ve been here, but because they weren’t students, they weren’t academics, technically speaking, we don’t highlight that.”

In fact, Allison said that it is not spite for the College that motivates CCL&I members to stay involved with the committee, but rather love for the institution and its potential for improvement. 

This is information we should know because not to the detriment of the community, but to the benefit of the community,” Allison continued. “It may seem like we’re negative about William & Mary because of what we put out, but I think it’s not. I honestly think that this is a labor of love. We’re doing this because we want the community to be better. We want everyone to have this knowledge so that we can appreciate where we’ve been, where we’ve come and where we want to go.”

As a part of this labor of love, CCL&I conducts thorough research on the historical figures commemorated on campus through various statues, building names and iconography, and members expressed that this work is not an easy undertaking by any means. Sissoko spent an entire year researching James Monroe and his statue, and Allison similarly spent the same amount of time on Blair and his statue. 

“We tried to shorten it to do research in one semester, but we realized that’s too much and we think it’s really like a yearlong thing,” Sissoko said. “It’s a small committee, and because the research takes so long, we don’t have as much output as we wish that we had. And so that’s something that more people could definitely help with.”

To compile the year-long essay that is eventually made publicly available on their website about the relevant figure each person researches, committee members often utilize Swem’s Special Collections and online databases to find information, especially focusing on gathering primary sources. With such a wealth of information to pull from, Sissoko described how easy it is for committee members to fall into online rabbit holes as they spend long hours chasing endless references.

“A lot of it is just finding something online, going to the reference, clicking that reference, clicking another reference, clicking another reference, until, you all of a sudden have like fifty tabs open, and you have to go to class,” Sissoko said with a chuckle. 

Allison further emphasized the sheer amount of time, effort and dedication that goes into CCL&I’s research that many would not readily realize.  

“The output that you see is the last step in our process,” Allison said. “There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes in terms of the research … and deciding what information we want to highlight, what information we don’t talk about because, you know, when you’re doing Thomas Jefferson, I mean, books upon books upon books have been written about him, and you can’t say everything. So we want to focus on specific things that have specifically to do with William & Mary. It looks like a lot when you just look at the website. But then when you go back and go through all our documents, it is so much more than what it looks like — it really is very labor-intensive.”

Because CCL&I is a grassroots student organization without institutional backing, its members also undertake their own independent fact-checking and peer review process. This exercise is further legitimized by a graduate student, who assists the CCL&I team in their work, and Midden, whose primary responsibility as CCL&I’s research chair is to finalize all of their research.

“We go through revisions and rewrites of the final essay [on our website],” Allison said. “We do annotated bibliographies so that way we can kind of prove why we’re using these sources and why they’re reputable — or if they’re not necessarily reputable, then what they mean in terms of the narrative that’s been portrayed. Like I had a source of James Blair from 1901 that was a commissioned history by a specific historian that was horrible in terms of accuracy, but in terms of narrative, it was amazing.” 

The weight of being some of the first — if not the first — bearers of the information about the male historical figures central to the College’s past is not lost on CCL&I members. Bouldin explained that the intensity of CCL&I’s review process is meant to eliminate factual inaccuracies in their research so that they can build a basis of legitimacy and trust with their readers, many of whom will be seeing this information for the first time. 

It’s detail-oriented because we want to make sure that we’re putting the right information out there because we know … we’re putting out information that not a lot of people know about, and we don’t want to put out the wrong information,” Bouldin said. “We want to make sure it’s right, we want to make sure it’s correct.”

However, with the research being so time-intensive, it was often difficult to stay on track since it relied on personal accountability and passion rather than a structured system based on institutional credit. Thus, the executive board of CCL&I created a syllabus for their own course, Memorials and Icons, which is now offered at the College under the advisorship of Professor Robyn Schroeder, a professor of history who has served as a crucial mentor and resource for CCL&I. 

“It was kind of a mutual coming together where Professor Schroeder saw the research we were doing, and she went, ‘I would love to be someone who can guide and help, but also learn from you all as well,’” Bouldin said. “And this was a great opportunity for us to also get credit applied to the work that we’re doing. So we started meeting with her, sharing about what our goals were, what we do, sharing our research with her. She was sharing about all of her past work that she’s done on other campuses and how they go about contextualizing all of their statues, memorials and monuments. And so we worked with her to get readings, to plan trips to other universities.”

Schroeder will also be assisting the students that are enrolled in the course with compiling a final report for Student Assembly that details how they want their research to be used in order to enact positive change and sets goals for the College moving forward. 

Currently, the course is intentionally only open to those in CCL&I as the executive board hopes that assigning institutional credit to their research will draw more students into joining the committee. Allison explained how the class not only provides much-needed recognition for their laborious efforts, but also allows them to better organize their work and incentivizes interested students to join. 

“Hopefully this will continue to be an option for people in the committee and allow them to get credit for the work … so that we can get a lot more people because this is really important work,” Allison said. “It’s very labor intensive, and it’s a lot to juggle with all our other classes, so this is a good way to actually get it done and done well.

In addition to Dr. Schroeder, CCL&I receives significant support from the Lemon Project, with Dr. Sarah Thomas and Dr. Jody Allen always making themselves available to help out with whatever it may need. 

“Dr. Thomas has given us multiple Wren tours just for us to talk about the history of Wren itself and how our work plays into that,” Allison said. 

Because of CCL&I’s close relationship with the Lemon Project, executive board members have participated in a Lemon’s Legacies Porch Talk, in which they showcased their research in a roundtable discussion that garnered positive feedback from the student body and professors of the College. The two organizations also joined forces to take a trip to Monroe’s Highland.   

The Lemon Project also brought us along with them in November 2021 where we went and visited Monroe’s plantation that William & Mary also owns, which was also something very controversial a few years ago when a wave of students found out about it — it was sort of a campus talking point,” Sissoko said. “We visited there, and we talked to the descendants of the people that Monroe enslaved. They have a committee there. And so that was a really interesting venture that we did, considering also the fact that I at the time was researching Monroe.” 

Collaborations between CCL&I and the Lemon Project will only continue, with their next major venture being the Lemon Project Symposium, a national research symposium that spotlights scholarship relating to the relationship between African Americans and William & Mary. CCL&I will be paneling at the symposium, which will take place on March 24, 25 and 26, 2023.

Another initiative that CCL&I plans to begin in the upcoming semester is increasing their social media presence. The committee plans to release street-interview-style TikToks in which board members approach student passersby and ask them what they know about prominent historical figures associated with the College, such as Blair or Jefferson. While the committee has spent years dedicating themselves to research, it is now thinking about how to best disseminate the information to the student body, most of whom are not knowledgeable about the full history of the College.   

However, much like conducting research, trying to reach the student body presents its own set of unique challenges. 

“Students have a vested interest as well in maintaining that the school has a certain ranking, has a certain level of distinction,” Sissoko said. “And so that is also something that we have to contend with — thinking about this research and the reason why students wouldn’t be necessarily invested or interested in seeing this research be put out, because it really does criticize the very foundings of this institution and also what it chooses to stand for today.”

Another factor that complicates how CCL&I spreads its message is the limited confines in which they can operate, as CCL&I must remain keenly aware of how what it says is perceived by administration. 

“It’s a very fine line to walk on — trying to share this information without getting too much pushback or any silence,” Bouldin said. “We don’t want to get shut down. So we’re really trying to figure out how we can share this information with students — with anybody who wants to know it — but without getting pushback.”

Despite the hardship they may face and the often thankless work that they do, CCL&I members remain steadfastly dedicated to their cause, choosing to focus on the meaningful benefits produced by their advocacy and work.  

“I think a positive is honestly feeling like you’re bringing some semblance of justice in a way or feeling like at least you’re doing something along those lines,” Sissoko said. “Because, out of the thousands of enslaved people, most were not given a narrative. A lot of the brutal things that happened to them by these men that the school commemorates [aren’t] talked about.”

By shedding light on the enslaved individuals integral to the founding of the College, CCL&I functions as an important safe space for Black, Indigenous and People of Color. For Bouldin, who expressed that she did not feel as though she was celebrated as a Black woman upon coming to the College, CCL&I allowed her to finally feel seen and empowered knowing that she could help other Black students know that they have a history at the College that is also worth celebrating. 

“My freshman year, when I first came to this campus, I had a complete culture shock,” Bouldin said. “Every time I walked around, I only saw these statues and commemorations of people who did not look like me — who in fact owned people who looked like me. So I remember always going to the Lemon Project and talking to Professor Jodi Allen, like, what could I do, like where can I help? And then it was through the Lemon Project that I found out about CCL&I in my sophomore year, and that’s how I joined. When I heard that they were creating it, I was like, ‘I really want to be part of this, I want to help provide context for the men that are celebrated so often.’”

Bouldin ultimately spoke about how being in CCL&I is a bittersweet endeavor. For Bouldin, and echoed by the other executive board members, reconciling with the College’s participation in systems of enslavement and brutality is mentally, emotionally and physically taxing, but holding widely commemorated figures accountable for their actions and furthering a much-needed public discourse around the College’s history is nothing short of rewarding. It is ultimately the hope for a better future that dulls the pain of the past. 

“I think that there is hope, and I think that’s what drives a lot of us — the hope that things will change,” Bouldin said. “Because if we didn’t think William & Mary would change, we wouldn’t do it. So we know that W&M has the opportunity to do better, to have these conversations, to have difficult conversations. We know W&M is a great school with a lot of intellectuals here. We know that these conversations are hard, but they’re going to be had.”

CORRECTION (2/21): A previous version of this article contained a misspelling of Dr. Jody Allen’s name. The article has now been updated to reflect the accurate spelling.


  1. There is a social agenda here as demonstrated by the emphasis in BIPOC interest; worst atrocities in human history; no one represents me etc. The researchers seem to take the stance that everyone had slaves; native peoples were peaceful; indentured servants never existed; those who fought to defend frontier families were inconsequential; and settlers/founders had everything provided for them. Their conclusion is already drawn and the research is an attempt to justify their points of view in the context of todays society. Disappointing.


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