William & Mary hosted its inaugural Black Alumni Reunion on May 6-8 at the university’s campus with a series of programs, ceremonies and receptions honoring the Black experience at W&M. The reunion was made possible thanks to generous philanthropic contributions, including support from both the William & Mary Alumni Association through funds allocated for the Hulon Willis Association and Truist Financial.

The calendar of events for the first Black Alumni Reunion included an open house at the Center for Student Diversity, walking history exhibit of Black Greek letter organizations at W&M, game night, networking lunch, meet and greet for Black alumni from William & Mary Law School as well as a night of dinner and dancing.

“Change needs to be seen and felt, and we as an institution must strive to ensure that all — especially those who are historically underrepresented — feel like they belong and that they have a great experience here at William & Mary,” said President Katherine A. Rowe.

Rowe delivered remarks ahead of the dinner Saturday evening.

“I am thankful for everyone who has joined us for this momentous occasion. I am also grateful for the partnership I have found in the Hulon Willis Association,” she said. “W&M is not the same institution it was when Hulon Willis enrolled in 1951 or when the Legacy Three arrived on campus in 1967. Nor are we the institution that we aspire to be — yet. I look forward to continuing this urgent work with you, so that every step of the way changes are felt and are visible for all.”

Lynn F. Briley ’71, D.Sc. ’18, Janet Brown Strafer ’71, M.Ed. ’77, D.Sc. ’18 and Karen O. Ely ’71, D.Sc. ’18 — also known as the Legacy Three — were the first Black undergraduate students to live in residential halls and take full advantage of campus facilities and offerings. All three were in attendance for the reunion.

Hulon L. Willis Sr. M.Ed. ’56 was the first Black graduate of William & Mary and served as a pioneer for those who have followed in his footsteps. To honor his legacy and memory, the Hulon Willis Association was formed in 1992. The Hulon Willis Association, as a part of the William & Mary Alumni Association, is dedicated to continued and sustained engagement of alumni of Black or African descent. It seeks to provide alumni opportunities to build community through connection with fellow alumni, students and alma mater.

The co-presidents of the Hulon Willis Association, Sacha Vania Trinette Thompson ’97, M.Ed. ’99 and Jerome J. Carter ’12, opened the events with remarks prior to a panel discussion Saturday morning titled, “Being Black at W&M: Past, Present & Future.”

People sit in chairs on a stage
Panelists discuss “Being Black at W&M: Past, Present & Future.” (Photo by Skip Rowland ’83)

“There are times that you don’t know you need something until it happens,” Thompson said. “Black Alumni Weekend was that for me. I’ve been on campus more times than I can count post-graduation — but it was this weekend that had the most impact. It was the culmination of decades of ideas and dreams, bringing this community together. It will also be a catalyst for Black alumni to continue connecting and growing together. At a time when so much is challenging the existence of Blackness in this country, this is what we needed to begin strengthening our bond and our resilience.”

During the reunion weekend, the university dedicated Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved, a brick monument located next to the Wren Building which honors the people whom William & Mary enslaved over the course of 172 years. Many of the people who attended the dedication 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.

After the dedication, alumni participated in a Donning of the Kente ceremony. The Donning of the Kente is a graduation ceremony for students of color that began in 2012. Many alumni did not have the opportunity to be celebrated in this way, so all alumni were invited to take part in this special ceremony.

The dinner Saturday evening served as a time to not only connect, but also recognize the philanthropy that made the event possible and encourage others to give back.

A group of people pose for a photo in front of a green backdrop that says William & Mary
Reunion attendees gather for a photo after Sunday’s brunch. (Photo by Skip Rowland ’83)

Following remarks made by the Hon. Birdie Hairston Jamison ’79, J.D. ’82 and W&M Chief Diversity Officer Fanchon “Chon” Glover M.Ed. ’99, Ed.D. ’06, Hulon L. Willis Jr. ’77, the son of Hulon L. Willis Sr. M.Ed. ’56, launched a string of commitments, raising $30,000 in pledges for the National Pan-Hellenic Council garden. Commonly referred to as the “Divine Nine,” the National Pan-Hellenic Council Inc. comprises nine historically African American fraternities and sororities. The garden will affirm W&M’s value of belonging by serving as a dedicated place for our NPHC members to gather and feel connected to the campus and each other.

Also in commemoration of the Black Alumni Reunion, Karla Munden ’90, who recalls being one of a very few students of color in the business school during her time at W&M, established the Karla D. Munden Scholarship Endowment. Munden is the senior vice president and chief audit executive for Lincoln Financial Group and currently serves as a member of the William & Mary Foundation Board of Trustees.

The Munden Scholarship will provide need-based scholarship support for undergraduate business majors at William & Mary, with a preference for those who contribute to campus diversity. While Munden was unable to attend the reunion, she hopes that her generosity will inspire others to increase their support for students, faculty and staff of color at W&M.

“I am overjoyed with the excitement and memories we shared during the weekend,” said Valerie Brown Wilkins, M.Ed. ’08, associate director for alumni engagement and inclusion initiatives at William & Mary. “This landmark event has served to acknowledge our past, celebrate our accomplishments and honor the place that brought us together. Thank you to everyone who helped make this reunion one to remember.”