Students, Williamsburg community share mixed reactions to Gates Hall

Brown Hall archaeological site. RYAN GOODMAN / THE FLAT HAT
Brown Hall archaeological site. RYAN GOODMAN / THE FLAT HAT

Wednesday, March 20, the College of William and Mary announced an anonymous $30 million donation to renovate Brown hall into an academic building and rename it Robert M. Gates Hall after College Chancellor Robert Gates ’65, L.H.D. ’98. Following the announcement, students, community members and organizations alike expressed mixed reactions. 

One such organization was the Committee for Contextualization of Campus Landmarks and Iconography, who expressed their discontent with the decision in a statement titled, “Gates Must Go,” on Instagram. The group addressed their message to College President Katherine Rowe, the board of visitors, Gates, Provost Peggy Agouris and the greater College community. 

The CCL&I also created a petition alongside this statement to take action against the decision.  

“The renaming and expansion of Brown Hall at the site of The Bray School – a place of colonial expansion and the indoctrination of enslaved children – to commemorate Robert Gates, a man involved in adjacent harmful processes, is a further stain on William & Mary’s long and shameful history. This renaming is a blatant contradiction of the administration’s alleged efforts towards true and honest racial reconciliation. As a committee, CCL&I calls for an immediate cease of William & Mary’s violent veneration of reprehensible person(s) both in its association and within our campus landscape,” the statement reads.  

“This renaming is a blatant contradiction of the administration’s alleged efforts towards true and honest racial reconciliation.”

The CCL&I’s statement elaborated on the historical significance of the Williamsburg Bray School and its connection to Brown Hall. The Bray School was an institution for enslaved and free Black students from 1760 to 1774, and in 1930, Brown Hall was constructed over the original site of the Bray School. The William and Mary Foundation then purchased Brown Hall in 1939 and used the building as a dormitory for Army Specialized Training cadets and service members. Most recently until 2022, it served as a freshman dorm. 

“The College, in renaming and expanding Brown Hall further on the grounds of the Bray School, is implementing another process of erasure that has marked this site for over a century. If William & Mary is truly reconciling with its history, this ground deserves to be honored and preserved for future research, which would not happen with the establishment of a hostile institution atop it,” the CCL&I wrote. 

The petition “Gates Must Go: End William & Mary’s Violent Venerations” had over 600 signatures as of Monday, April 1, and aims to reach 1000. 

Mellon Engagement Coordinator for African American Heritage and Director of the William and Mary Bray School Lab Maureen Elgersman Lee provided an alternative perspective to the construction. 

“The W&M Bray School Lab, as part of the Office of Strategic Cultural Partnerships, recognizes the vast contributions that Chancellor Gates has made to William & Mary. The gift by an anonymous alumna donor is most generous in bringing back to life a building that has been standing vacant and silent on the W&M campus. This renovation is making possible additional archaeological research, and we are excited about the possibility of additional significant discoveries,” Elgersman Lee wrote in an email to The Flat Hat.

“This renovation is making possible additional archaeological research, and we are excited about the possibility of additional significant discoveries.”

Elgersman Lee also responded to concerns of Gates Hall replacing the history of Brown Hall and the Bray School. 

“The history of the Williamsburg Bray School and Brown Hall will not be replaced at the new Gates Hall. In fact, with the planned exhibit of the building’s history to include artifacts, photographs, etc., the history of the Bray School will be far more prominent after the completion of the renovation and reopening of the current structure as Gates Hall,” Elgersman Lee said. 

In Rowe’s email to the school announcing this decision Wednesday, March 20, she also mentioned this exhibit.

“The building’s design will honor the site as the original location of the Williamsburg Bray School with a permanent exhibit,” Rowe wrote. “Groundbreaking for the expansion and renovation will begin this fall. We expect Gates Hall to open in advance of our country’s 250th anniversary in 2026, when millions of visitors are anticipated in Williamsburg.”

The exhibit that Elgersman Lee and Rowe are referring to aims to provide students, faculty and other visitors with the opportunity to learn more about the history of the Bray School. The Bray School Lab also shared the news at a community event in February 2024 that the Colonial Willamsburg’s archaeology team was returning to the Brown Hall site to look for artifacts that will help interpret the history of that site. 

“This meeting was conducted in partnership with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and many in attendance—including members of the Descendant Community—were pleased to hear that work of historical exploration was continuing and that they would be invited to offer ideas for further memorializing the Bray School on the site,” Elgersman Lee wrote.

Elgersman Lee is optimistic for the Gates Hall plan, as the Bray School Lab was informed of this decision ahead of time.

“The W&M Bray School Lab was aware of the naming decision in advance of the public announcement and will be one of several university partners to provide input on how the history of the site, including its connection to the Williamsburg Bray School, will be even further illuminated for a broad audience,” Elgersman Lee wrote.

Some students reacted positively to the change.

“The fact that William & Mary is prioritizing campus departments that work with topics such as integrative conservation, sustainable development, and global peace and security is truly exciting,” Sophie Workinger ’24 wrote in an email to The Flat Hat. “The reimagined facility places these often-overlooked areas front and center, demonstrating the University’s commitment to supporting collaboration, idea-sharing, and creativity among students, academics, and practitioners as we work to develop solutions to the many complex issues our world faces.”

Katelyn Oxer ’24 M.P.P. ’25 gave similar reactions to the announcement.

“Although I’ll miss the house on Scotland Street, and I’ve already become accustomed to the Hive in Swem, I’m looking forward to what a wonderful opportunity that Gates Hall provides for students. I’m proud to say that I have been involved [with] GRI in research, education, and employment, and I have confidence in their vision of the space,” Oxer wrote. 

In an email to The Flat Hat, representatives of the CCL&I explained their sentiment behind the organization’s concerned statement.  

“I’ve become incredibly disillusioned with the College and admins ability to make appropriate decisions. Frankly, the administration is largely apathetic to social issues if it doesn’t fit into whatever political maneuvering that best legitimizes the College’s prestige and marketability,” one wrote.

The other representative, although discontented, also expressed their unsurprise.

“Though the initial email we all received was a shock, I was ultimately not surprised by this decision,” they wrote.

They both see the College’s ability to stride toward positive change. However, for the CCL&I, this is not an example of that.

“I’m used to overall inaction from the College, so the fact that they so easily announced this renaming with no transparency as to what the process looked like was the biggest surprise. It shows that change on this campus is very possible and feasible. That renaming is something that the school can do. However, they will only do so if it fits into the narrative they have created and continue to perpetuate for the College – one that centers white men and the various harmful ideals upon which the College was founded,” the second representative wrote. 

They ultimately believe this decision is ingrained in hypocrisy.

“Why can’t the College do the same thing towards renaming spaces to honor the lives stolen by brutal institutions that once stood atop it?” the first member asked. “Given the initiatives the College pledged after the murder of George Floyd, initiatives meant for racial reconciliation, the naming of Gates Hall – especially on top of a historic site that hosted the brutalities of slavery and its propagation – is a glaring contradiction.”

“Why can’t the College do the same thing towards renaming spaces to honor the lives stolen by brutal institutions that once stood atop it?”

They further explained their issue with the building being attributed to Gates. 

“With added insult, to change the name to honor a man who is complicit in furthering the violent and repugnant imperial interests of the United states that has cost the lives of millions of people in Iraq and Afghanistan, including a perpetuation of the harmful and predatory military industrial complex, there really aren’t words to describe the depravity of this decision from the Administration. This action alone calls into question the sincerity of the College towards real and tangible change,” the representative wrote. 

In an email to The Flat Hat, Director of News and Media Suzanne Clavet described her observed positive reactions to the decision. 

“Reaction to this announcement has been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, the Instagram post referenced includes more than 3,100 ‘likes’ and we’ve seen positive responses on our other flagship platforms,” Clavet wrote. “It is such great news, and this expanded interdisciplinary academic space will offer significant benefits for current and future students, faculty, staff and alumni.”

Still, a majority of the comments on the College’s Instagram post are overwhelmingly negative.

Like Elgersman Lee, Clavet emphasized the College’s measures to include the descendant community in this decision.

“Leading up to the announcement, there were many in-person conversations about the plans for the building with a diverse group of stakeholders, including community members and leaders,” Clavet wrote. “Specifically, news of the renovation was met with enthusiasm by members of the Bray School descendant community, who were pleased to see archaeological research resuming and plans for an exhibit related to the Bray School site’s history developing.” 

Ultimately, Clavet sees the long-term positive impact of this decision on the College and the greater Williamsburg community.

“Thanks to this gift, this work will continue, in coordination with Colonial Williamsburg, the W&M Bray School Lab and the Bray School descendant community and ensure that we are able to honor and preserve the history and legacy of this site,” Clavet wrote. “For example, we anticipate this work will allow us to uncover and highlight the original foundations of the Bray School, which have been hidden for the past 90 years. This generous gift will provide unprecedented opportunities for W&M students, faculty, staff and alumni.”

Ultimately, the CCL&I representatives believe the College’s administration still has a long way to go in its goals of uplifting diversity and equity. 

“The administration needs to listen. To the students, campus community, and faculty. One look at our petitions, from this spring and last, proves that people care about this. People have issues with the decisions the College is making. Furthermore, these decisions are contributing to exclusionary and unwelcoming spaces for students,” they wrote.

This sentiment was also echoed by another member.

“Admin needs to genuinely ask themselves what [reconciliation] would look like at William & Mary, not just in theory or symbolism, but materially in application. Until that happens, no concord can be achieved and nor should it as community members affected by admins actions and systemic marginalization can’t trust that the administration is acting in good faith in their endeavors,” they wrote. 

In an Instagram post published April 1, the CCL&I detailed other next steps.

“We have sent the petition to both deans and admin and have not received a response. We are particularly awaiting response from Katherine Rowe, Peggy Agouris, and Ginger Ambler,” the post reads.

“We have sent the petition to both deans and admin and have not received a response. We are particularly awaiting response from Katherine Rowe, Peggy Agouris, and Ginger Ambler.”

As key organizers of the CCLI’s petition against Gates Hall, members of the CCL&I explained their further steps of action.

“The largest endeavor we are trying to achieve is getting 1,000 signatures on our petition. In order for us to bring it up to SA, who has access to the BOV and other bodies who were involved in this naming, we need considerable campus support. Until then, we’re just trying to keep this in the larger campus dialogue, as it’s a pressing issue that also points to the larger contradictions of the College that can serve to inform the student body of the constructed histories and narratives we are up against,” they wrote.

In a follow-up statement to the Flat Hat, CCL&I clarified their position on the Bray Lab.

“We are in no way positioning ourselves in contention with the Bray Lab and their work, as it is valuable and important. We just wish, as a student body who are affected by perpetuated legacies at this institution, that there was transparency on this matter. Without dialogue, there will be no resolutions,” a spokesperson for CCL&I explained.

CORRECTION (04/04/24): Article was updated by Anna Arnsberger, the Editor-in-Chief, to clarify quote attribution.

CORRECTION (04/04/24): Article was updated by Anna Saal, the Standards and Practices Editor, to include CCL&I’s follow-up statement regarding their stance on the Bray Lab.


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