University collection named for Hulon Willis Sr.
Hulon Willis Sr. came to William & Mary’s campus in 1951 as the College’s first African-American student. During Homecoming weekend, his life and legacy were celebrated.
The School of Education, which opened its new facility this summer, named a space in its library for Willis, who received his master’s degree in education from the College in 1956. The Willis collection includes books as well as electronic resources on multiculturalism and diversity.
Members of the Hulon Willis Alumni Association, faculty and staff from the College and members of Willis’ family gathered in the School of Education Sunday morning for a dedication ceremony followed by brunch.
President Taylor Reveley offered brief remarks during the dedication, noting that the College was very proud of its long history, but that “it’s a source of deep regret and abiding dismay that for most of its life, William & Mary was a school closed by definition and policy to too many people.”
Since Willis first entered the school, however, great strides have been made. In fact, 26 percent of this year’s freshman class is comprised of men and women of color, said Reveley.
“Although the embrace of diversity came very slowly to William & Mary – agonizingly slowly – it has now arrived in full force,” said Reveley.
Virginia McLaughlin, dean of the School of Education, said the idea for the collection sprang from the strategic planning process, during which faculty identified diversity as a focal area. Under the leadership of Assistant Professor Jeremy Stoddard, a collection was created focusing on diversity.
“We know that all of us – no matter our race, our ethnicity, our background and experiences -- all of us need to work continuously to develop our understanding, respect and appreciation of other cultures,” said McLaughlin. “This is particularly true for those of us who are educators.”
The education dean noted that the collection, which is just getting started, includes works that were donated by faculty and staff in the School of Education. The resources are available for use by the entire campus community as well as by the teachers that the School of Education serves.
“We are so honored that the first African-American student at the College of William and Mary was in the School of Education,” said McLaughlin. “It seems particularly fitting given our mission. We can only imagine the strength, the courage and the persistence it must have taken for him to take those first critical steps.”
Willis’ widow, Alyce, joined McLaughlin in cutting a ribbon on the bookcase that holds the beginnings of the collection named in her husband’s honor. A memorial plaque sits atop of the bookcase, next to a framed 1951 Flat Hat newspaper page that includes an article about Willis’ arrival at the College.
“I am just so pleased that this has been done,” said Alyce, who received a copy of the plaque to take with her. “When I look around and see so many friends from so many years, it really does something to me. Thank you so very much for coming and being part of this.”
Willis’ son, Hulon Willis Jr. '77, said that the event was very emotional for him.
“I can’t begin to explain how proud I am because 33 years ago, I would have never thought of this,” he said. “I left and I was very disillusioned about William & Mary, and never in my lifetime would I have thought of even recommending that my daughter come here. Things since that time have changed and have made me aware of a lot of things I didn’t come to appreciate while I was here. William & Mary is deep in my heart.”
Willis’ granddaughter Mica, a government major now in her junior year at the College, said that the collection means a lot to her and her family.
“It’s all kind of overwhelming,” she said. “I’m still sort of in shock, but I’m just glad that they’re dedicating something in honor of my grandfather, and I think it’s really nice. It’s because of the community that William & Mary is, it’s such an open community now and everything’s so loving. I’m just so happy that this is happening.”
Reveley said that the College will always be grateful to Willis for “taking those first hard steps that opened the ancient doors of William & Mary to people of all sorts.”
“And we’re thankful for all those people of color who have followed in his footsteps, including the next two generations of his family,” he said. “We look forward to having the Willis collection in our midst to help the College provide a genuine, warm welcome for everyone.”