Creating Community Spaces: A Legacy of African Americans at William and Mary

Creating Community Spaces: A Legacy of African Americans at William and Mary

Isabella Lovain, Jioni Tuck, Kamryn Morris

January 13, 2019

Introduction

The campus of the College of William and Mary was built using enslaved labor, making the racial legacy of the College far-reaching and complex. The first African American students at William and Mary all found and created community spaces where they received support in the face of intense discrimination. Black employees on campus became close allies with many of these students, and the first three African American women in residence at William and Mary created the Black Student Organization as a community for Black students. The Black Student Organization allowed for a safe space for African Americans on campus, and its members stood up against racial oppression at William and Mary over the years. Organizations such as the Center for Student Diversity have built upon these efforts to support minorities on campus. Practices such as the ‘donning of the Kente’ celebrate the successes of people of color at William and Mary, allowing for increased recognition of African American students. However, this work is far from over. The legacy of African American students has allowed for increased diversity and inclusion at William and Mary, but there is still a tremendous amount of progress needed in terms of inclusion on campus. The history of African Americans on campus is inextricably tied to race relations on campus both in the present and in the future, making black community spaces, support systems, and learning about African American legacies essential for addressing racial tension on campus today.

The First African American Students at William & Mary

Hulon Willis was the first Black student at William and Mary, where he attended classes part-time and got his Master’s Degree.[i] While there, Willis received support from African American staffers on campus, who told him, “We’ve been waiting for you for a long time”, and “greeted him with great pride and joy and supported him one hundred percent”.[ii] Janet Strafer, Lynn Briley, and Karen Ely were the first three African American students in residence at William and Mary in 1968. All three had various levels of encouragement from their high schools- Lynn Briley was encouraged to attend the College, Janet Strafer was discouraged by her guidance counselor, and Karen Ely was warned that she might not receive a warm welcome.[iii] The three women felt enormous pressure to “represent the race well” among their white peers, many of whom had never been educated alongside Black students before.[iv] The three experienced many incidents of discrimination and resistance from both the administration and the student body, including an incident when someone wrote the ‘n word’ on the sidewalk and another when a student dumped water on their heads as they passed a building.[v] In Karen Ely’s first week of classes, she overheard a conversation with President Paschall and a woman. The woman remarked, “That’s one of the three. She’ll never make it”.[vi] Ely walked up to the two of them  and responded,  “Not only will I make it, but next year I’m going to make sure there are even more students that look like me here”.[vii] This demonstrates the opposition that existed from not only particular students on campus, but faculty members as well.

When reflecting on their experiences at William and Mary, the three women frequently highlight moments of support and community they found at William and Mary, as well as their own individual efforts at building a community and a legacy for future African-American students. These positive moments of hope display the formal and informal community spaces that the first three African American students in residence experienced and created at William and Mary. Sam Sadler, the Vice President of Student Affairs at the time, served as an ally for the three students. When Karen Ely had to stay for an extra semester, Sadler told her, “Register for your class, when you come back, you’ll sign the papers- I’ve got you”.[viii] Ely found community in her chorus, saying, “I was very comfortable, we did the same kind of music that I did in high school. We even did negro spirituals”.[ix] Many of the food service workers on campus, particularly African-American food service workers, were the three womens’ “great allies”.[x] Many William and Mary staff members were protective of the three women, and gave them extra food in the cafeteria.[xi] The reference librarian would even set science books aside for Karen Ely during her time in school.[xii] They also received support from the members of the First Baptist Church across the street from campus.[xiii] These formal and informal communities offered support to the three women as they set a precedent for those to attend William and Mary in the future, just as Karen Ely predicted. Lynn Briley remarked that “if you’re the first, then you just don’t quit”.[xiv] The three women’s legacies of perseverance, alongside all those that came before and after them, is clear today. Karen Ely said that she is “glad that the College is going in this direction, not only for women in general, but for African American women- the positions that they hold here now, I never would’ve thought they would hold”.[xv]

Black Spaces at William and Mary

The Black Student Organization (BSO) was one of the first organizations that gave voice  to Black students at William & Mary. Janet Strafer, Lynn Briley, and Karen Ely were some of charter members of BSO in 1969.[xvi] They aimed to support African American students at William & Mary and share their experiences to make people more comfortable on campus. The BSO served as a way for Black students on campus to support and get to know one another. In an interview, Janet Strafer said that the BSO “was a place we could go and really let our hair down. And not having to be judged for what we say or do…the slang that we would use…we didn’t have to do that there, so it was nice to just have a place where we could relax”.[xvii] The Black Student Organization was particularly important during the first two years of integration at William and Mary because it gave Black students a supportive space where they could be themselves and discuss shared experiences. During BSO meetings, members would listen to music, play cards, and discuss their daily lives. The BSO was granted their own house that had a study room and lounge with books and records written by Black people.[xviii] The BSO also provided a platform for activism. Before the 1969 homecoming game, BSO members challenged the playing of the “Dixie” song at football games and threatened to burn small Confederate flags if it was played.[xix] In 1971, the BSO staged a counter demonstration to protest the Kappa Alpha fraternity’s tradition of marching through Colonial Williamsburg dressed in Confederate uniforms.[xx]

Since 1969, more organizations have been formed that have worked to support Black students and other minorities on campus. In 1974, the university created the Office of Minority Affairs, whose core mission was to serve Black people. In 1991, the name changed to the Office of Multicultural Affairs and as of 2009, it became the Center for Student Diversity. The Center for Student Diversity has broadened its scope to address the needs of all minority groups on campus, including LGBTQ+ students and students of various religions and faiths.[xxi] The Hulon Willis Association was created in 1992 by African American Alumni and is named for the first Black alumnus of William and Mary. The association focuses on connecting alumni and enhancing the life of African American students at the College.[xxii]

The Importance of Black Spaces at William and Mary

Despite being formally accepted into William and Mary, the first Black students at William and Mary still weren’t fully accepted in the community. Today, there are many instances where Black students report feeling unwelcomed by their peers. In 2005, Tunisia Riley recounted her experience as the only Black student in concert band. She stated that “out of 50 of the musicians who are in the band, only like 5 tried to interact with [her]”.[xxiii]  Mitzi Glass, a 1981 graduate, talked about her professor’s opposition to having black students at the university, explicitly stating that the standard for admittance was different for Black students. She discussed how her dorm hallmates “never had been in close proximity with black people”.[xxiv] The sister of Oscar Blayton, the first undergraduate Black student at William and Mary, recounted that Oscar “didn’t get any kind of support; they didn’t want him there”.[xxv] Moreover, the lack of acceptance by their peers, despite their academic excellence, made the college experience for Black students difficult, thus making the impact of black spaces essential. Despite extensive preparation for college, many Black students were not prepared for their experiences at William and Mary. Three of the five Black women who enrolled as freshmen in 1968 dropped out due to their inability to adjust well to the workload, as well as the social challenges presented to them during their first semester at the college. Despite being in the top two percent of the class, according to the girls’ advisor, they felt that “their background just wasn’t enough” (p.26). Although prepared academically, many Black students were unprepared for the social obstacles that they faced at William and Mary. With communities of support and opportunities to reflect on shared experiences, the outcome may have been different.

Black spaces at William and Mary aim to prevent these experiences from happening again and work to celebrate the accomplishments and presence of Black students on campus. The Donning of the Kente, for example, is a rite of passage that celebrates the personal and academic achievements of graduates of color. Students are given the ability to choose their own donners, a gesture that recognizes the most important people in their lives. According to Kendra Cabler, who graduated from the School of Education in 2014, the ceremony “provides a unique opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of multicultural students in a more intimate setting with friends and family”.[xxvi] Jody Allen, Director of the Lemon Project, believes that the ceremony is an opportunity to remember those who paved the way for students of color and those who will come after them.[xxvii] She reminds people of color at the College that they are “part of a strong legacy” and should not “ever forget it”.[xxviii] The inclusion of Black spaces on campus are essential for showing the community’s appreciation of of Black students at William and Mary.

Conclusion

It has been over 60 years since the first African American student started taking classes at William and Mary and just over 50 years since African Americans have been fully considered students at the College. The first African American students faced discrimination from both their peers and professors, and felt pressure to represent their race well. However, they succeeded and paved the way for larger numbers of African Americans to be admitted to the College. Organizations focused on supporting Black students were important to the success of these students. The Black Student Organization was the first organization created to support African American students on campus, and still advocates for Black students today. In the 1970s, the College created an office to address minority affairs, and the number of student groups that represent and support Black students on campus has grown. Though there are more Black students on campus now than in the 1950s, students still report that they do not feel completely welcome on campus. This discomfort highlights the importance of creating and supporting community spaces for African American students at the College of William and Mary, and the need to build on efforts and legacies of the past.

[i] Jacqueline Filzen, “African Americans at the William and Mary from 1950 to 1960,” Lemon Project, accessed

January 13, 2019, 12.

[ii] ibd.

[iii] Janet Strafer, Lynn Briley, and Karen Ely, “Oral History,” interview, William and Mary, accessed January 13,

2019, https://www.wm.edu/sites/50/three_students/oral_history/index.php.

[iv] ibd.

[v] ibd.

[vi] ibd.

[vii] ibd.

[viii] ibd.

[ix] ibd.

[x] ibd.

[xi] “Social Spaces: Systems of Support on Campus,” The Lemon Project, , accessed January 14, 2019, https://

lemonlab.wm.edu/exhibits/show/building-a-legacy/systemsofsupport.

[xii] ibd.

[xiii] Lois Bloom, “Integrating the College of William and Mary,” For the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation

at William and Mary, September 10, 2014, https://www.wm.edu/sites/lemonproject/_documents/

IntegratingWMBloom.pdf.

[xiv] Janet Strafer, Lynn Briley, and Karen Ely, “Oral History,” interview, William and Mary, accessed January 13,

2019, https://www.wm.edu/sites/50/three_students/oral_history/index.php.

[xv] ibd.

[xvi] ibd.

[xvii] ibd.

[xviii] Lois Bloom, “Integrating the College of William and Mary,” For the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation

at William and Mary, September 10, 2014, https://www.wm.edu/sites/lemonproject/_documents/

IntegratingWMBloom.pdf.

[xix] “Social Spaces: Systems of Support on Campus,” The Lemon Project, accessed January 14, 2019, https://

lemonlab.wm.edu/exhibits/show/building-a-legacy/systemsofsupport.

[xx] Bloom, Lois.  “Confederates on the Campus “Dixie” and Secession.” Lemon Project Collection, Special

Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary (2013).

[xxi] “Center for Student Diversity,” William and Mary, accessed January 14, 2019, https://www.wm.edu/offices/

studentdiversity/aboutus/history/index.php.

[xxii] “Center for Student Diversity.” William and Mary. Accessed January 14, 2019. https://www.wm.edu/offices/

studentdiversity/alumni-family-friends/index.php.

[xxiii] Tanisha Ingram, “The Cultivation of the Black Experience: Student Voices at William and Mary, 1954-2014,”

William & Mary, accessed January 14, 2019, https://www.wm.edu/sites/lemonproject/_documents/

tanishaingram.pdf, 8.

[xxiv] Tanisha Ingram, “The Cultivation of the Black Experience: Student Voices at William and Mary, 1954-2014,”

William & Mary, accessed January 14, 2019, https://www.wm.edu/sites/lemonproject/_documents/

tanishaingram.pdf, 6.

[xxv] Tanisha Ingram, “The Cultivation of the Black Experience: Student Voices at William and Mary, 1954-2014,”

William & Mary, accessed January 14, 2019, https://www.wm.edu/sites/lemonproject/_documents/

tanishaingram.pdf, 24.

[xxvi] “The Lemon Project,” William and Mary, accessed January 14, 2019, https://www.wm.edu/sites/lemonproject/

donning-of-the-kente/index.php.

[xxvii] ibd.

[xxviii] ibd.

Course Syllabus for Coll 150: Creating Community Spaces: A Legacy of African Americans at William and Mary

Course Syllabus for Coll 150: Creating Community Spaces: A Legacy of African Americans at William and Mary

Professors: Isabella Lovain, Jioni Tuck, Kamryn Morris

Tyler 123, T 5-7:50

Course Description

This course gives an overview of the history of African Americans at the College of William and Mary, specifically since the 1950s. We will explore what it means to be a Black student on campus, particularly when contextualized with changing norms and historical events at a state and national level. We will analyze the ways in which Black students thrived on campus by creating their own community spaces in order to subvert long standing racism and discrimination at a institutional, explicit, and implicit level. Students will build and strengthen their writing, debating, and analytical skills through multidisciplinary approaches in this course. Ultimately, students should walk away from this class with an understanding how students’ experiences today fits into the complex history of race relations at William and Mary, and how those experiences fit into the larger history in the United States.

 

Content Objectives

At the end of this course, students should have a working understanding of:

  1. The varied experiences and legacies of Black students at William and Mary;
  2. The ways in which the campus’ racial climate has reflected the cultural norms in Virginia and in the United States on a large scale;
  3. The community spaces created for and by Black students at William and Mary and the larger implications of these networks of support;
  4. How African Americans at William and Mary have subverted, challenged, and overcome long standing racial norms in the face of discrimination

 

Skill Objectives

By the end of this course, students will have improved skills in:

  1. Analyzing primary and secondary sources in American Studies;
  2. Presenting original ideas, theories, and arguments from a collection of sources;
  3. Debating over complex themes, ideas, and arguments in order to strengthen persuasion skills in oral speech skills;
  4. Reading and synthesizing various arguments to formulate their own written arguments;

 

Assignments

    1. Discussion on the points of view of Brown v. Board of education as well as recent affirmative action policies
      1. Do background research on Brown v. Board of education and affirmative action policies, and the impact of this history and these policies today
      2. Come to class prepared for an in class discussion
        1. Prepare at least 3 discussion questions/topics to discuss
      3. The discussion will be on Week 2
    1. Create a timeline of important events in William & Mary’s history based on the readings and class discussions so far
      1. The timeline should include at least 7 events with a short 50-100 word description of the event and its significance
      2. The timeline can be digital or physical
      3. Due week 5
    1. Interview 3 students, staff, or alumni about their experiences and perceptions of race relations at the College of William and Mary.
      1. Interview at least three people, at least one person of color, and write a 500 word memo summarizing and analyzing the interviews
      2. Draft at least five questions for your interviews, and try to focus on the connections between the past, present, and future of race relations on campus.
      3. Due Week 7
    1. Create a project that answers the question: How do different students experience William and Mary and why?
      1. Examples of projects are documentaries, zines, or spoken word performances
      2. 10 minute presentations will occur during the last week of classes
      3. Due Week 10

Course Overview

 Topic Readings Assignments
Week 1: A Brief Overview of African Americans at William & Mary
Week 2: Brown v. Board of Education, HBCUs, and Affirmative Action Prepare for in-class debate
Week 3: Admissions and the First African American Students
Week 4: The First African American Students in Residence Work on timeline
Week 5: Examining the Experiences of the First Women on Campus Submit timeline
Week 6: The Creation of Spaces for Minority Students Conduct interviews on students’ racial experiences
Week 7: Racism on Campus Conduct interviews on students’ racial experiences
Week 8: Building Legacies
Week 9: Preparation for Final Projects/ Class Review
  • Review older readings
  • Discuss the final project, Q&A
Work on final project
Week 10: Final Project Presentation Present final project (10 mins)