Essay: Memorialization at William & Mary and Beyond

There is an electricity in the air at the College of William & Mary.

Last year, the university commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of African American residency. This year marks its hundredth year of its acceptance of white women as students, as well as the arrival of the first female president, Dr. Katherine Rowe, to campus. The recognition of these landmarks over the past few years has made William & Mary a vibrant community abuzz with conversation and a fresh sense of contemplation. It is with this momentum that the College takes its next step both towards and away from its past.

This step is more formally known as the Memorial to African Americans Enslaved by William & Mary.

In the atmosphere of the reflection so sharply encouraged by recent commemoration, students, faculty, alumni, staff, and community members alike remembered the Commonwealth’s 2007 expression of “profound regret”—not apology–for its promotion of and engagement in slavery. It is in this atmosphere of reflection that members of the Student and Faculty Assemblies of 2007 and 2008 demanded the university’s apology for and research of the long and infamous history of enslaved labor on campus. In response, the Lemon Project, an investigation into slavery and its acknowledgement on campus, was formed in 2009 and began its journey. It is in this atmosphere of reflection that in the spring of 2018, the Board of Visitors released a statement unprecedented in the College’s official publications: an apology.[i]

Expanding upon former president, Taylor Reveley’s, apology, the College will continue to confront its historical legacy with the construction of the Memorial to African-Americans Enslaved by William & Mary. The project was first announced on August 28, the proclamation including a call for the submission of design concepts that could be implemented on campus to memorialize those enslaved by the College. Admissions were accepted until the twelfth of October. The contest was open to anyone and required applicants to submit visual representations and a brief written explanation of their ideas. Currently, a panel of jurors (compiled of alumnae, students, faculty, and community members knowledgeable about William & Mary both presently and in the past) is selecting their three favorite design concepts. These three finalists will be sent to President Katherine Rowe, who will rank–or completely disregard–the three options, the creators of which will receive cash prizes. After the final decision is made, the memorial will be installed in an undecided location on the Historic Campus. This project is sponsored by the Lemon Project’s Committee on Memorialization.[ii]

William & Mary was chartered in 1693 and owned slaves until 1865: 172 years of slave ownership. From 1865 to now totals 153 years, which means that the College has owned slaves for more years than it hasn’t. The Wren building, now the “ceremonial center” of William & Mary, originally housed slaves. Throughout the College’s early years, slaves were a fixture of the campus. Whether owned by the College or the students, it is undeniable that William and Mary supported the use of slave labor throughout its early years. This point is further illustrated by Nottoway Quarter, a plantation purchased by the College in 1718 whose revenue was used to fund scholarships for lower class white men. The ownership of slaves persisted until about 1800, when the College faced economic trouble and was forced to rent rather than own its slaves. For the following 60 years, professors and leaders, including one of the presidents of William & Mary, were outspoken about the economic need for slavery in Virginia. During the Civil War, the Wren building burned, and the College fell to ruin. It was kept officially open by Benjamin Ewell and Malachi Gardiner, his Black tenant farmer, ringing the College bell at the beginning of each semester. Thankfully, when the College was rebuilt, slavery was no longer a large factor.[iii]

Considering that William & Mary has existed as a supporter of slavery for longer than it hasn’t, a simple statement of apology is not nearly enough, especially when it comes as late 2018. The College recently finished taking community submissions for a memorial to the enslaved, a truly important step in acknowledging and apologizing for its past as an institution of slavery.

The intended placement of the memorial on historic campus is very significant, as it will likely be close to the Wren building, one of the most celebrated buildings on campus and the original residence for slaves owned by the College. In addition, the monument is meant to build a bridge between William & Mary and the greater Williamsburg community. Many African American residents of Williamsburg feel uncomfortable interacting with the College because of its troubled past.3 Through building the memorial to the enslaved, William & Mary hopes to prove that it not only regrets its previous actions, but that it takes full responsibility and acknowledges the unjustness of those actions. Across the United States, institutions continue to make progress on the same front.

Numerous universities and colleges, across both the Commonwealth and the nation, have taken similar steps in recognizing the need for apology, research, and memorialization in the pursuit of racial and historical reparations. As mentioned earlier, in 2003, Dr. Ruth Simmons led the establishment of the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice–now the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice (CSSJ)–at Brown University as the first Black female president of an Ivy League institution. Composed of “faculty members, undergraduate and graduate students, and administrators”, this initiative “devoted three years to […] uncovering, documenting, and discussing Brown’s history and relationship to American slavery and the African slave trade.”[iv] Beyond this research, CSSJ has specifically dove into projects including an exhibition on the global interconnectedness of the slave trade, documentary studies, educational initiatives for high schoolers, and artistic expression and reflection.[v] Their most notable and progressive work, however, is their annual report exploring and exposing the university’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade, a project unthinkable by its peer institutions at the time.

Brown, alongside William & Mary, is a member of the Universities Studying Slavery, a coalition of universities and colleges who are currently researching their involvement in enslaving laborers and exploring possibilities for acknowledging and righting past crimes and their consequences. The group currently consists of 46 institutions from the United States and beyond, with multiple universities, including various Virginian institutions, funding specific research projects or commemorative events.[vi]

Washington & Lee University is one of said local members, with its Working Group on the History of African-Americans at W&L being founded in 2013 by then-President Kenneth P. Ruscio.[vii] The university has faced particular scrutiny and pressure due to its infamous namesake, Robert E. Lee. In its efforts to research and reconcile for its past, W&L has led an exploration into its use of slave labor and has more recently established a historical marker dedicated to the men and women enslaved at the university.[viii]

One of the most well-known institutions in the Commonwealth, the University of Virginia, has also engaged in recent efforts to commemorate its enslaved workers on campus. UVa began its Presidential Commission on Slavery and the University in April of 2013. The commission conducts research, hosts the symposium for the Universities Studying Slavery, leads an educational summer institute for high schoolers, and creates commemorative films.[ix] In 2016, the university took its greatest step towards progress in its approval of a large-scale memorial, which will include each of the enslaved workers’ names on it.[x]

When the use of enslaved labor is recognized and responded to by such globally notable institutions, a precedent begins to take shape, encouraging conversations on and amongst universities and colleges about what their wrongdoings were and how to act upon such realizations.

William & Mary’s recent anniversaries of coeducation and desegregation and the development of its newest memorial have brought famed speakers, artistic expressions, academic initiatives, massive reunions, and honorary events to its campus. However, the most important effect of these times of commemoration is the rise of one pulsating question: is this enough?

When such a horrible legacy of injustice lies behind the university, what can possibly be done to properly apologize for and right these wrongs? The construction of a memorial for enslaved labor as an integral part of the College’s campus creates a tangible manifestation of President Reveley’s apology, a community effort that will undoubtedly bring attention, conversation, and a step forward on the long road of reparations. However, this new initiative is not a solution to William & Mary’s past, nor is it a bandage that can be slapped upon the long-lasting wounds of slavery and residual racism and intolerance still present on campus and in academia as a whole.

The Memorial to Enslaved Labor at William & Mary is an incredible and important step in addressing the College’s past, a laudable precedent for its peer institutions and communities around the United States and beyond. It should not–and will not–be the final destination.


[i] “The Lemon Project: African Americans at the College: A Historical Timeline,” The College of William & Mary, 2019,

[ii] “Memorial to African Americans Enslaved at William & Mary: About the Memorial,” The College of William & Mary, 2019,

[iii] Sarah Thomas, Ph.D., “An Introduction to the Lemon Project: A Journey into Reconciliation,” The College of William & Mary, 2019.

[iv] “Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice: History,” Brown University, 2019,

[v] “Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice: Projects,” Brown University, 2019,

[vi] “President’s Commission on Slavery and the University: Universities Studying Slavery,” University of Virginia, 2013,

[vii] “Working Group on the History of African Americans at W&L,” Washington & Lee University,

[viii] “African Americans at Washington & Lee,” Washington & Lee University, 2018,

[ix] “President’s Commission on Slavery and the University,” University of Virginia, 2013,

[x] Anne E. Bromley, “Design of UVA Memorial to Enslaved Labor Wins Approval,” University of Virginia, June 3, 2017,

Syllabus: Memorials and Their Significance on College Campuses

The College of William & Mary

Memorials and Their Significance on College Campuses

June 10th-14th, 9am-12pm

Summer 2019

Meg Jones, Matthew Thompson


Course Description

This one week, discussion-based, summer course offers a deep dive into memorials on college campuses and their significance. With the current development of the Memorial to Enslaved Labor at William & Mary underway, attention is being drawn back to the racism and cruel disregard for human rights, formally known as the transatlantic slave trade. The College is one of many institutions exploring their historical involvement and taking steps towards apologetic restoration, but what exactly does this journey towards justice entail? This course will explore the meaning and importance of memorialization in its various mediums and challenge students to think critically about the actions being taken by William & Mary and its academic peers.


Course Goals:

Students will…

  1. Discover how and why memorials and monuments are used on college campuses
  2. Understand William & Mary’s current memorial plans and connect the College’s attempts to apologize to other universities
  3. Look at the importance of memorialization, reparations, and apologies in an institution’s journey towards reconciling its past
  4. Be able to understand why a community may react negatively or positively to different types of memorial
  5. Explore universities’ possibilities of continuing the rectification of their involvement in slavery beyond memorialization


Course Skills:

After completing this course, students will be able to…

  1. Communicate academically about collegiate recognition, apologization, and rectification surrounding the academy’s historical use of slave labor.
  2. Communicate non-academically about the social significance of memorialization and the institutions fueling both the support and opposition of its implementation.
  3. Read, analyze, and interpret secondary sources surrounding the topic in order to convey and gather the selections’ central topics and themes.
  4. Use class discussion, personal experience, current events, historical documents, and scholarly works to think critically and form their own strong, substantiated arguments regarding class material and the implications of actions being taken.



  1. Create plans for your own memorial and write a 2-5 page paper explaining its meaning and how a community of your choosing may react to it. This memorial may represent any historical event of your choosing, but also must integrate themes and topics that we have discussed in class.
  2. Extra Credit – American Vandal: After our discussion on vandalization, you may choose a historical monument or memorial and show how you would vandalize it in a meaningful way. A recent example was a student placing blood on the hands of the Thomas Jefferson statue here at William & Mary.




Date Topics and Assigned Readings Assignments

(due the following week)

6/10 Main topic: Understanding why a monument may be built and looking at our own institution as a case study
Read prepared to discuss the significance of this memorial and why you think it is being implemented
6/11 Main Topic: Looking at other examples of memorials on college campuses
Read: Each of the different colleges on this page’s efforts as well as UVA’s
6/12 Main Topic: Community Reaction to memorials and monuments
Read: CNN article, point out examples of what you see as “meaningful vandalism”, perform additional research for examples of “meaningful vandalism”
Begin work on American Vandal
6/13 Main topic: The importance of apology and reconciliation
Read: Weyeneth’s paper on the power of apology, pay specific attention to parts concerning memorials and monuments.
6/15 Main topic: What are the next steps an institution can take to apologize for its past? What comes next?
Begin work on the final project
Final Project due next week