As the sound of church bells rang out around William & Mary Saturday afternoon, the sun broke through gray clouds. The sunlight illuminated a newly completed brick structure similarly meant to bring the university’s involvement in slavery out of the shadows.
An estimated 800 students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members gathered for the dedication of Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved, which honors the people whom the university enslaved over the course of 172 years.
“After over a decade of research, we know more about the people who walked these grounds, but we may never know them all,” said Jody Allen, assistant professor of history and Robert Francis Engs Director of The Lemon Project. “What we do know is that this monument is a permanent marker of their existence. They will never be swept under the archives again. We will no longer ignore the past because we understand that willful ignorance hinders progress.”
Allen was one of multiple speakers at the event, which featured a performance by the singers from the community referred to as a Williamsburg Community Choir, the pouring out of a libation and a reading of an original poem by Hermine Pinson, Frances L. & Edwin L. Cummings Professor of English and Africana Studies. Additionally, 12 members of the local community, 10 alumni, two current undergraduates and five current and past faculty members read the names of people who were enslaved by the university. The ceremony concluded with the opportunity for participants to lay flowers in basins at the base of the memorial.
“Frank acknowledgement of painful facts is powerful and necessary for a healthy, pluralistic democracy,” said W&M President Katherine A. Rowe. “We have much work still to do at William & Mary. Yet 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.”
The ceremony took place during the university’s inaugural Black Alumni Weekend. Many of the people who attended had played a role in the creation of the memorial, including students and faculty who laid the groundwork for research into slavery at W&M.
The memorial resembles a fireplace hearth and is meant to symbolize both a place of community and the center of domestic enslavement. A vessel to hold fire that will burn on special occasions will be installed at the center of the Hearth at a later date. Among the memorial’s red bricks reminiscent of the W&M’s historic buildings are black bricks engraved with the names of people enslaved by the university, with some simply saying “UNKNOWN PERSON” acknowledging individuals mentioned but unnamed in the record.
The names used in the memorial came from research conducted by The Lemon Project, an initiative founded in 2009 to study the university’s history with slavery and Jim Crow discrimination and its ongoing relationship with the Black community.
Architecture forever changed
The call for a memorial and research into W&M’s history with slavery originated with student and faculty assembly resolutions, which led to the Board of Visitors acknowledging the university’s involvement in slavery and the establishment of The Lemon Project in 2009.
“Since then, so much work has been done to educate, to learn from others, to create dialogue and in doing so, to reconcile and repair our community about our complex past,” said Rector John E. Littel. “Today is such an important step in that journey of reconciliation – I don’t want to say culmination because we have much more work to do – but I do recognize how significant this moment is, saying the names, remembering people, having this present in our historic campus.”
An international memorial design competition, open to all, was initiated under W&M President Emeritus Taylor Reveley in 2018. The winning design concept was created by W&M alumnus Will Sendor ’11 and executed by the architectural firm Baskervill. About 400 donors, including every current member of the Board of Visitors as well as every former rector, contributed to the project, which cost more than $2.9 million.
When ground was broken for the memorial last May, participants pushed down a brick wall that was perceived as a barrier — both literally and symbolically — to W&M by many Black people, said Chief Diversity Officer Chon Glover.
“This was powerful as it opened the space for the placement of Hearth, and it also allowed the university to reclaim and reimagine the new entrance into campus, for all to embrace and acknowledge the full history of our university. Hidden no more,” she said.
Situated between the Brafferton and Ewell Hall, its design both blends into the historic architecture of campus and stands out, said Meghana Boojala ’22, the outgoing president of the Student Assembly.
“It provides a space for community. At the same time, you can now not walk to the Wren without seeing this memorial,” she said. “You cannot perceive those aged bricks until you acknowledge the new, deep brown bricks behind me. We have changed our architecture forever, and, as students, that fundamentally changes our college education for the better.”
Glover said she hopes the memorial will “serve as a symbol of perseverance and faith for all.”
“Although this is a wonderful achievement, it is only one step in our ongoing work of inclusive excellence and reconciliation as we share a richer, fuller and more inclusive history of W&M,” she said. “May we remember and honor our ancestors and the legacy they left for us as long as the sun shines and the waters flow.”
Acknowledging the truth
The memorial “will forever change the student experience” at the university, said Boojala.
“For those students who have been advocating for systemic equality and against racial injustice on campus, this serves as a meaningful step,” she said. “As a university, we now recognize the role we played in protecting the system of slavery, loud and clear. Many students on campus have felt that their personal story — their history — has been unheard, unrecognized. This memorial has fundamentally changed the way people perceive our campus. We are facing our burden and celebrating all of the lives that were here at the College head-on.”
Rowe began her remarks by reading from the plaque at the memorial site, saying in part:
“These plain statements are not comfortable, nor simple. Nor should they be,” Rowe said. “Yet when we make plain the legacy of slavery and racism in this country, we create the possibility for unity — by acknowledging forthrightly what has been neglected or actively hidden.”
While Virginia, Williamsburg and W&M typically embrace and share their respective and collective histories, those histories are often incomplete or incorrect, Littel said.
“The most appropriate thing we can do as students, teachers and participants in that history is to share all of it — the good and the great, the bad and the brutal,” he said.
In order for the country to move forward, it must acknowledge the truth of its past, said Allen.
“This country can be redeemed, but it must remember,” she said. “It needs leaders. William & Mary is one of those leaders, but to remain a leader it must never forget that it once led in pro-slavery thought, eugenics and segregation. It must continue to use its place in the academy to address the ills of the past.”
Erin Jay, Senior Associate Director of University News