College celebrates 331st Charter Day, students organize protest

Lonnie Bunch Charter Day

Friday, Feb. 9, the College of William and Mary celebrated its 331st Charter Day in Kaplan Arena. This year, which the College deemed the “Year of the Arts,” featured a video of student groups wishing the College a happy birthday, an address from the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Lonnie G. Bunch III, L.H.P. ’24 and a rendition of “Happy Birthday” from the Cleftomaniacs acapella group. 

After a brief opening remark by College President Katherine Rowe, President of the American Indian Student Association Dakota Kinsel ’26 and Vice President Matthew Solomon ’24 read the land acknowledgement. The acknowledgement recognizes the indigenous peoples who were the original inhabitants of the land the College is on. Rowe then also recognized tribal leaders in attendance.

“It’s my honor to welcome everyone assembled here to this year’s Charter Day’s ceremony as both a citizen and councilmember of Patawomeck Indian Tribe and as a William and Mary alumnus,” Danny Brad Hatch M.A. ’09 said. “At last year’s Charter Day ceremony we gathered to formally commemorate the construction of the Brafferton Indian School building and reflect on the school’s history and legacy.”

Also attending this year’s Charter Day ceremony was the Drapers’ Company, a livery company from England. Founded in the 14th century, the company started as a guild of drapers with a goal of monitoring the price and policy of cloth.

In modern times, the company developed into a philanthropy group with an interest in education, social welfare and prisoner habilitation. 

Master of the Drapers’ Company Thomas Harris explained the longtime history between the company and the College. In 1955, after a dinner hosted by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation at Drapers’ Hall in England, a scholarship for the College was soon created afterward.

“We suspect that the president of William and Mary and master draper got on rather well that night, as the first scholarship program for law students followed shortly thereafter. And that scholarship program still exists today, nearly 70 years later,” Harris said. 

College Chancellor Robert M. Gates ’65, L.H.D. ’98 also addressed the audience. In his remarks, he highlighted the importance of civil discourse, referencing the College’s history of educating the founding fathers of the United States. 

“For us to act today, we too must diligently engage in the tough and broadening free flow of ideas and open discussion,” Gates said. “We must still our own passions in order to listen, especially to those with whom we disagree. We challenge ideas, not persons.”

“For us to act today, we too must diligently engage in the tough and broadening free flow of ideas and open discussion.”

As former Secretary of Defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Gates also further elaborated on the issue, citing his desire for a civil discourse of ideas.

“Sustaining William and Mary’s ideals and ensuring its future success depend on the open exchange of ideas, tolerance of different points of view, the willingness to listen and to learn, and the determination of all to defend the freedom of expression of diverse opinions — to seek wisdom in mutual respect and, wherever possible, in bridging differences,” Gates said.

Outside of the Kaplan arena, several students protested the administration’s response to the war in Gaza, carrying signs accusing Rowe and the College of supporting genocide in the conflict. In widely shared posts on Instagram, W&M Dissenters and the Committee for Contextualization of Campus Landmarks and Iconography criticized Charter Day celebrations and urged students not to participate.

“Today, as the W&M community blindly celebrates the 331st birthday of the university, we implore you to confront the ways this school has and continues to accommodate and glamorize colonization that has destroyed the cultures, lives, and families of indigenous peoples,” the Dissenters wrote in their Feb. 9 Instagram post. 

“Today, as the W&M community blindly celebrates the 331st birthday of the university, we implore you to confront the ways this school has and continues to accommodate and glamorize colonization that has destroyed the cultures, lives, and families of indigenous peoples.”

This year’s Charter Day ceremony saw two recipients of honorary degrees — former College Rector Jeffrey B. Trammell ’73, D.P.S. ’24 and Bunch. 

Trammell, who served as the country’s first openly gay board chair at a major university, came to the College as a transfer on a basketball scholarship. 

After graduation, he worked as a congressional staffer and then as a lawyer. Trammell later went on to advise six presidential campaigns. Former College Chancellor and Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Sandra Day O’Connor officiated his wedding in the Supreme Court in 2013.  

Starting his tenure as the head of the Smithsonian Institution in 2019, Bunch was the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Beginning with only one staff member and no funding, Bunch led the museum to widely-acclaimed success. He has also served on the Committee for the Preservation of the White House under Bush and Obama.

Bunch reflected on receiving his honorary degree prior to the ceremony. 

“Well, you know, usually, I don’t do this anymore,” Bunch said. “I turn them down. But because of my profound respect for William and Mary, as an amazing educational institution, as an institution that is grappling with its own racial past, I thought it would be something I would say yes to. So I’m very humbled and honored.”

As a historian, Bunch touched on the College’s work in recognizing its history.

“I think that it is really important, this work that’s being done that illuminates all the dark corners of William and Mary,” Bunch said. “I mean, the question is, and what I’m going to say at my talk, is that, it’s important to realize that these are not ancillary stories, that this is not simply restorative justice, but that this is really central to understanding William and Mary, and that these are stories that are not. We just say, ‘Oh, it’s good to do good.’ Rather it’s good to do because it helps us understand who we are.”

Bunch expressed his hopes that students realize their potential.

“I think that one of the things that you hope that students realize and it’s that when you use things like history or science, when it really is saying, ‘How do you point your way in the direction of doing good?’ In other words, making sure that students recognize that they’re amazing elite kids, they get these great opportunities. So how do they think about doing good, utilizing what their training is to do good, and they can define doing good in any way you want, but also really to recognize that, when you’ve got a chance to do something greater than yourself. And that’s what makes a country great when people do that,” Bunch said.

Students described their experiences with the College’s planned Charter Day festivities. Mollie Ehrenberg ’27 reflected on what Charter Day means for her. 

“It means that the university is still going around,” Ehrenberg said. “You know, we’ve stuck around for this long, and we’re just going to keep going. It’s a celebration of everything that we stand for, I guess. I really like seeing all of the decorations in Sadler, and I’m excited for the Green and Gold Bash.”

In Bunch’s speech, he also emphasized the role that history plays in our understanding of the present.

“At a time of extreme partisanship, we need to not fear our history but we need to embrace the past, and we need to be made better by the knowledge that we have been shaped by this history,” Bunch said at the Charter Day ceremony.

CORRECTION (02/20/24): Article was updated by Anna Saal, the Standards and Practices Editor to retract a quote at a source’s request to help clarify the journalists’ reporting.


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