The College of William and Mary has been a source of education and policy development since before the colonies revolted and formed the country we now know. William and Mary is no passive observer to history, it is history, a place where echoes of the past walk hand in hand with students and educators of today. More than 300 years of experience brings with it both a reputation for excellence and resiliency.
Those echoes whisper their wisdom to us and if we listen closely, we can still hear the voices of those who helped create this unique place. The whispers are ever-present, and in this time, as we celebrate Black History, it is especially important to seek out those which reflect the difficult and complicated history The College has had with the Black community. They are voices of exploitation and success, of slave and free, and ultimately, of learner and educator. They are voices of those whose spirit and determination have overcome great obstacles to succeed here. Their rise has meant great progress for the Black community but also the reshaping of the landscape of education conducted through historically white colleges to benefit us all.
In 2009 the Board of Visitors for The College of William and Mary recognized the school, “owned and exploited slave labor from its founding to the Civil War; and that it had failed to take a stand against segregation during the Jim Crow Era.” The Board offered its support in the founding of The Lemon Project, named for a slave owned by William and Mary. The project exists as, “a multifaceted and dynamic attempt to rectify wrongs perpetrated against African Americans by the College through action or inaction.” Its purpose is to develop scholarship exploring the legacy between African Americans and the College, promote reconciliation and to help establish stronger connections with the surrounding communities.
Hulon Willis, M.Ed., became the first African American to receive a diploma from the College in 1956, nearly 263 years after the school’s charter. In 1963, Oscar Houser Blayton enrolled and attended classes as a freshman and sophomore becoming the first African-American to ever be an undergraduate at William and Mary. 1967 marks the entrance of the first African-American women to come to campus, who also were the first African-American students to reside on campus: Karen Ely, Lynn Briley, and Janet Brown. Charlene Renee Jackson is elected Homecoming Queen, the first African-American woman to wear the crown, in 1988, 295 years after the charter.
This grouping of achievements is, of course, incomplete but even in this truncated form serves as a stark reminder. It took more than 260 years for those whose forebears forcibly built, cared for, and supported William and Mary to be able to come here as students. It is important that we not lose sight of the perspective of time. Often history is dismissed as unimportant or irrelevant. We are all products of our past and so too are those who had to fight for recognition of their humanity and rights.
It is folly to think that those times are restricted to the past. While certainly strides have been made, those times create our history, and it is from our shared history from which we grow. If we choose not to listen, if we choose willful ignorance over the temporary discomfort of opening ourselves to understanding and insight, then what have we learned or gained? It is the broader experience, the deeper meaning, which makes The College of William and Mary the institution it is. Projects like The Lemon Project help us to remember.