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William and Mary Aims to Atone for Role in Slavery

William MaryWilliam Mary

He was known as Lemon. For years he toiled in the cotton fields owned by the College of William and Mary. The school used proceeds from the fields as financial aid for young White male students from poor homes.

When the Virginia college sold the cotton fields in the early 1800s, Lemon was one of the few out of the 17 slaves who worked the fields redeployed to the college campus in Williamsburg. The others were sold. Lemon presumably worked there until his death in 1817.

Little else is known about him. Not his last name nor his survivors.

But a few years ago when William and Mary, the nation’s second-oldest university and, for centuries, the leading intellectual champion of Southern causes, including slavery and segregation, decided to atone for its past deeds, college officials picked Lemon as a symbol.

In 2009, seeking to address the wrongs against African-Americans, the college’s board of visitors passed a resolution acknowledging that William and Mary “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’s action followed resolutions by the student and faculty groups that asked the college to investigate its history in race relations and its role in slave labor.

And the Lemon Project was born.


Repentance project

“The Lemon Project – A Journey of Reconciliation” is a long-term research project aimed at better understanding, chronicling and preserving the history of Blacks at the college and in the community.

It is a multi-faceted scholarly and community outreach effort that organizers hope will ultimately bridge the chasm between the college and African-Americans, many of whom have historically felt antagonized by the college and its surrounding communities. It is reminiscent of efforts taken by several other prominent colleges, including Brown and Emory, to formally repent of their roles in slavery or the slave trade.

Although little is known about Lemon, the leaders of the project chose to name the program after him because the little data on him embodies the countless nameless slaves exploited by the college for 170 years.

Of all the slaves from that period who worked on the campus, “he’s the one we know most about,” explains Jody Allen, a visiting assistant professor of history at the college, who is co-chair of the Lemon Project. “He was chosen to be a representative of unnamed people. …We know that he occasionally acted as a vendor to the college. He sold produce occasionally to the college. We do know that in this area and other surrounding counties there are lots of people with the last name Lemon.”

In the years since the board of visitors passed the resolution, the leaders of the Lemon Project have launched an oral history project with the objective of getting African-American alumni and community members to share recollections of their relationship with the college. There are annual symposiums that include the presentation of papers by scholars and discussions by faculty, staff, students and members of the community.

Andrew Ojeda, a member of the College of William and Mary’s class of 2012 who did some work on the Lemon Project, says the second half of the project’s name is apt.

“After the Civil Rights Movement, we didn’t get a chance to talk about how racism impacts everyone in America,” says Ojeda, who is now a graduate student in American Studies at New York University. “We were just told to move on and forget about it. Having a conversation about it is very important. It can reconcile the past with the present.”

“It’s a healthy acknowledgement of something uncomfortable,” adds Terry Meyers, a professor of English and co-chair of the Lemon Project. “William and Mary has an ugly history in race. That is our heritage, especially in the Black community.”

The college’s sorry reputation and record on race relations was earned over centuries. And it wasn’t just the slaves owned by William and Mary for 170 years that put the college on the wrong side of history.


Slavery apologists

William and Mary was the intellectual center of Virginia and the genteel South, an unabashed apologist for slavery and Jim Crow. According to Allen, no one better symbolized this thinking than Thomas Roderick Dew, an influential writer and president of the college from 1836 until 1846.

“He was considered the chief ideologue for the defense of slavery,” says Allen. “William and Mary has a reputation for being the site for the justification of slavery.”

Allen says Dew died while on his honeymoon in Europe, but his reputation lived on. In 1939, nearly 100 years after his death, his body was disinterred, shipped back to Virginia and buried in the college chapel, she says.

“We were a think tank,” says Meyers. “We were generating the pro slavery thinking and support at that time.”

Conversations and interviews with older community members as part of the Lemon Project depict a frosty relationship between the college and the African-American neighbors.

“If you talk to Blacks who live around here, they clearly remember when they could not come on the campus unless they worked here,” Allen says, adding that many of them worked menial jobs, often in the cafeteria or as custodial staff.

Meyers says his research shows that, while the school was viewed as a leading apologist for slavery, the thinking was by no means monolithic among faculty and even administrators. He notes that, in 1791, the college gave an honorary doctorate to the English abolitionist Granville Sharpe and that the president of the college, who had traveled to England and met some abolitionists, was affected by their thinking.

“What I see is this more enlightened thread of thinking in the 18th century,” Meyers says.

Unlike many high-profile universities in the South, William and Mary began admitting its first Black students in 1951. But to hear many of the earliest Black students tell it, in those early days the college was not particularly welcoming. Blacks were not allowed to live on campus until 1967.

Allen says Davis Y. Paschall, the president of the college in the ’60s and ’70s, harbored segregationist views.

“He was apparently rude, unsupportive and made comments,” she says. “One student said it was the comment he made that she couldn’t handle the work here that inspired her.”


Welcoming diversity

The college has tried to revamp its image in recent decades. It has stepped up recruiting of Black students and faculty. It has also created an Africana Studies Department. Black enrollment has grown steadily, rising to about 7 percent. Overall minority enrollment is about 28 percent, according to Dr. Chon Glover, the school’s first chief diversity officer.

University officials acknowledge they’re not where they’d like to be in faculty diversity.

“That is because sometimes we just don’t have the lines,” says Glover. “Our faculty stay a long time. Faculty don’t retire at 62 and 65 anymore. There’s not this natural flow. We’ve [also] been hit significantly by financial cuts, so when positions are open, we may not have the money to fill them.”

Ojeda says that, while he applauds some of the university’s efforts, there’s still a long way to go. He says many Black students still don’t feel particularly welcome. He says the college has made good strides with the Lemon Project and the introduction of the Africana Studies program but can’t rest on its laurels.

“The introduction of Africana studies is fairly recent and extremely important,” he says. “But the university needs to build off of that. With things like the Lemon Project and African studies, this is just the first step. They need to continue to make progress.”

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