Changing the Landscape
Creating a Memorial to the Enslaved at William & Mary
In the 1930s, William & Mary (W&M) constructed a four-foot brick wall around the oldest section of the campus. Many people in Williamsburg’s Black community saw this wall as a reminder that they were not welcome on campus unless they “were pushing a broom.” On May 26, 2021, a portion of this wall was knocked down to make way for the memorial to the enslaved.
Fast-forward one year. With over 800 onlookers, W&M dedicated Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved. More than 15 years in the making, the memorial now stands as the rightful acknowledgment of people enslaved by the university or individuals affiliated with it (including faculty, administrators, and parents of students), and enslaved people hired to labor at W&M. The plaque on a nearby wall reads:
William & Mary enslaved Africans and African Americans for over 172 years. This memorial seeks to remember and honor those individuals through the symbol of the hearth which evokes at once the harsh, forced labor of chattel slavery as well as a place of gathering, strength, and community. Indeed, enslaved people made a way out of no way.
We often are asked about how Hearth came to be. The memorial is part of a movement loosely referred to as universities studying slavery. It is often difficult to determine the date a movement begins, but the genesis of this one is clear: the 2006 release of the Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. Established by university president Ruth Simmons, the committee was charged with researching Brown’s involvement with slavery.
In 2007, three students began a campaign to force the university to look at its role as an enslaver.
W&M began its own research 400 years after an English colony was founded at what the Native people called Tsenacommacah. In 2007, three students—Tiseme Zegeye, a Student Assembly senator, and Richael Faithful and Justin Reid, president and member, respectively, of the campus NAACP chapter—began a campaign to force the university to look at its role as an enslaver. What developed was a three-part Student Assembly resolution calling on W&M to research its full history, make the findings public, and establish a memorial to the enslaved. The following year, the Faculty Assembly passed a resolution calling on the university to look at its history with regard to race relations.
In response, the administration invited historian Robert Francis Engs to spend a semester on campus teaching a course and working with a faculty committee and graduate students to ascertain the state of the archives regarding slavery. A historian of the post–Civil War American South, Engs attended Princeton with then W&M president Taylor Reveley and provost Geoff Feiss, all three members of the class of 1965. Reveley and Feiss knew Engs’s scholarship and, more importantly, his character. At the end of his appointment, Engs submitted a report to the W&M Board of Visitors (BOV), who used it to develop a third resolution acknowledging that the college had been an enslaver and failed to challenge the legacies of slavery. This lack of challenge translated into the university’s adherence to segregation laws and the less formal, but just as insidious, rules of white supremacy. In short, W&M had not been a good neighbor to the African American community.
This 2009 resolution established the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation. Named after Lemon, a man once enslaved by the institution, the project was intended to be an eight-year archival research endeavor. Now in its 13th year, Lemon Project courses based on research findings remain popular, and the team has developed signature programs, including an annual symposium; Lemon’s Legacies Porch Talks, events that bring students, faculty, and community members together to discuss selected topics; and the Donning of the Kente, a rites of passage ceremony during Commencement Weekend.
As important as these events are, community-engaged research is the core of the Lemon Project. While the BOV resolution never referred to reparations, the Lemon Project’s work is reparatory, and the goal of building a bridge between the Black community and the institution is paramount. To this end, the Lemon Project team went into African American community spaces in 2010–11 to hear people’s concerns and doubts that real change would occur. Community feedback led us to hold the first symposium at the Bruton Heights School (BHS), formerly a segregated high school.
The early symposia featured panels of community members and W&M faculty, staff, and students. We listened and we asked questions in a safe venue where people could share their thoughts. As the research progressed, Lemon Project team members shared findings with symposia participants. For the first five years, all or a portion of the symposium took place at BHS. After we outgrew the space, the symposium moved to campus, and the community moved with us.
By 2014, the Lemon Project began addressing the third request in the student resolution: establishing a memorial to the enslaved. The first step involved the course Memorializing the Enslaved of William & Mary, which I co-taught with Edwin Pease, a local architect and W&M lecturer. The class included community members, staff, an alum, and undergraduates. Invited guests included the vice president of advancement, the director of the historic campus, an English professor specializing in the impact of trauma, and even the university president, who attended the last class for the students’ presentations of their final projects.
The course was the springboard for the establishment of the Lemon Project Committee on Memorialization (LPCOM), which determined three requirements for the memorial: it should be located on the historic campus, the location of the college’s first three buildings; the design would be selected via an idea competition; and it must feature the names of the enslaved found to date, with provisions to add names as the research continued.
Within these requirements lay major hurdles to overcome. First and foremost was the proposed location. With the historic campus seen by some as holy ground, they refused outright to even entertain the idea that a memorial to the enslaved be located there, a space they assumed incorrectly had been unchanged for centuries. Some feared that acknowledging W&M as an enslaver would bring disfavor on the university; others liked the idea but repeatedly said, “It will never happen.”
The winning entry, designed by architect and alumnus Will Sendor, was announced in April 2019.
The idea competition was the second major obstacle. Traditionally, adding new structures to campus involves a request for proposal (RFP), a process that nets professionals. Inspired by Maya Lin, a Yale University undergraduate when she was selected to design the Vietnam War Memorial, LPCOM members wanted everyone to have the opportunity to compete. Initially, this nontraditional approach was unfathomable to procurement staff, but eventually we found a compromise. The idea competition entries would be judged by an anonymous jury, who would present three finalists to the president, who would select one. The competition netted 80 eligible entries representing four continents. “Hearth,” the winning entry, designed by architect and W&M alumnus Will Sendor, was announced in April 2019. With the winner announced, the building committee, consisting of LPCOM members, faculty, staff, and students and co-chaired by the chief diversity officer and the chief operating officer, was selected and began meeting in July 2019. An RFP was issued, and Baskervill architectural and engineering firm was selected to fabricate the memorial. They worked on Hearth from 2021 to 2022, and it was dedicated on May 7, 2022, during the university’s first Black Alumni Weekend.
Since the Lemon Project launched, the world has changed, and not necessarily for the better. The murders of Michael Brown, George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others too numerous to list here inspired the urgent cry that Black lives matter. It is also true that Black history matters. A people must know who and where they come from and who their people were, but there is a growing backlash against an inclusive US history. Indeed, some believe that teaching African American history is detrimental because it makes some white people uncomfortable. In this environment, the Lemon Project’s work and Hearth take on an urgency not felt in a long time. Colleges and universities can no longer sit back and participate in the miseducation of their students. They must step up and lead the way. As W&M president Katherine Rowe said at the dedication:
Frank acknowledgment of painful facts is powerful and necessary for a healthy, pluralistic democracy. And while we have much work yet to do at W&M, by naming plainly the dehumanization of those enslaved here, and their agency as human beings, this memorial begins to fulfill our collective responsibility to affirm the value of labor that has been invisible and to recover and share stories that have gone untold—here in Williamsburg, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, in our country.
Since the dedication, I have been asked if the work of the Lemon Project is done. The answer is no—there remains much work to do. The Lemon Project will continue to work alongside others at W&M to foster a feeling of belonging in all who join us. It is our hope that when historians write about the early years of the 21st century, they will say that this was a time when W&M and other institutions of higher education acknowledged their complicity in the miseducation of the country and began to address it. Hopefully, they will be able to say, “Job well done.”
Jody Lynn Allen is assistant professor of history and Robert Francis Engs Director of the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation.
Tags: Features Research North America African American History Public History
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