The College of William & Mary recently announced the formation of a panel to study how the college’s history is tangled with African-American history. This announcement follows a resolution the college adopted last spring, acknowledging it owned slaves and exploited slave labor from 1693 until the Civil War and discriminated against African-Americans during the Jim Crow era.
The college also plans to preserve and make accessible the papers of Maggie Walker (first African-American woman to charter a bank) and organize a lecture series, conferences, courses and oral history projects related to this study. The Lemon Project Committee, named after a slave the college owned in the early 1700s, will also examine race relations.
William & Mary deserves praise for making this step — a move the vast majority of colleges should follow. I hope the uncovered data is incorporated fully into the college’s history. Also, I think each member of the William & Mary community should learn this history.
But this will only be a few small steps on the road to retribution — if that is the college’s purpose with the resolution and the research committee.
A larger, more meaningful and progressive move would be for the committee to also discover the amount of money the college appropriated from African-Americans —or saved — by using slave labor. The college could set aside those funds for scholarships for African-Americans and/or to invest in an impoverished majority-Black public school in Hampton Roads, Va., or Richmond, Va.
Dr. Kimberly Phillips, a historian co-chairing the Lemon committee, told The Associated Press that research has found the college owned five to 10 slaves in the 1800s and may have hired slave laborers. Therefore, the remuneration will not be much. It probably would not even amount to 1 percent of the college’s more than $550 million endowment.
The college also served as the institutional home of Thomas Roderick Dew — one of the leaders of the pro-slavery movement during the antebellum era. Four years before Dew became president of William & Mary in 1836, he published the infamous essay “Abolition of Negro Slavery” in the American Quarterly Review.
In the essay, Dew argued that African-Americans, from an “economical and moral point of view, are entirely unfit for a state of freedom among the Whites.” Because, he said, “If we were to liberate the slaves, we could not, in fact, alter their condition — they would still be virtually slaves; talent, habit and wealth would make the White master still.” To Dew, African-Americans were not fit for freedom because they were ignorant, “unaccustomed to guiding and directing themselves,” “void of all the attributes of free agents,” the type that will only work by compulsion and “vastly inferior in the scale of civilization.”
The essay served as one of the intellectual foundations of the post-1830 pro-slavery arguments, just as William & Mary during his tenure served as the chief intellectual progenitor of the Southern position on slavery.
Acknowledging your wrongs are good. Studying and publicizing yours wrongs is better. Providing retribution, or punishing yourself is the best course.
In our criminal justice system, criminals are not pardoned once they acknowledge and share their wrongdoing. They still have to endure the penalty.
William & Mary has allocated funds towards the Lemon committee and many of its related plans, such as the lecture series and conferences. But it can do more. The college financially gained through its use of slave labor. To truly atone, it should give that relatively small sum of money back to African-Americans by investing it in their education.