William & Mary hosted the largest Lemon Project Spring Symposium ever on campus March 24-25, with more than 300 people registered to attend the event in person and another 469 registered to attend online.

The symposium, titled “At the Root: Exploring Black Life, History and Culture,” featured panel discussions on a variety of topics, ranging from Black church history to navigating Black culture today.

The event also served as a family reunion of sorts for descendants of various historical figures or Black communities who are using archival research, oral histories and genealogy to uncover their roots, make those histories known and connect with others on similar journeys.

“We believe it takes a village to recreate a family, and that’s the effort we’re engaged in,” said Allison Thomas, a panelist in a session about the Black and white descendants of the 18th-century Braxton family.

Jody Allen, assistant professor of history and Robert Francis Engs Director of The Lemon Project, told participants that they would learn throughout the symposium from a wide variety of people “at a time when it is becoming increasingly evident that acquiring knowledge about African American history is becoming more and more challenging.”

“Because of this, it is clear that establishing alternative venues to obtain this history is vital. That said, it is imperative that you share with your community what you learn this weekend.”

Provost Peggy Agoruis, who is from Greece, said that she is still learning that history herself. 

“I didn’t grow up in this country, and a lot of things that I’m learning about the history – good and bad – I’m learning as an adult, which gives me a different perspective and allows me to not only appreciate the pain and the difference that it made in so many lives, but also feel the need to do better and do it fast,” she said.

Agouris said that progress would only be possible if communities worked together.  

“Together we can break down walls while building bridges – bridges between William & Mary and the people who live in the communities around us.”

Family connections

Thomas is among the white descendants of Carter Braxton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and enslaver of more than 100 people.

She was joined on the panel by other descendants of the Braxton family, including former Williamsburg Council member Bobby Braxton; alumna Viola Baskerville, a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates and secretary of administration; and Jerry Gilstop, who participated via Zoom from California. 

The panelists are part of a nationwide effort to trace the intersecting white and Black branches of the Braxton family through research, DNA testing and outreach. The group calls the effort “justice genealogy,” said Thomas.

“The past is always present,” said Baskerville. “We are sitting at the College of William & Mary near Colonial Williamsburg. That tells us that even though we are in an environment that is of the past, we are here presently trying to examine that past and what it means to us. … We need to go back to the past to understand the present to know where we are going in the future.”

Another panel session included multi-generational descendants of the Hundley family that lived in a free Black community called The Reservation prior to the Civil War. They were displaced by the federal government in the 20th century through eminent domain to build the Yorktown Naval Weapons Station. The panelists learned of the history in various ways and are in the process of bringing it to light while connecting with other descendants of the community.

Belonging is among the most basic of human needs, said panel moderator Johnette Weaver.

“Maybe if you knew who you were connected to, you would be inspired, too. It’s not just Tulsa,; we have a story, too,” Weaver said, referencing the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 that nearly destroyed the Black community of Greenwood.

Revealing truth

Judge John Charles Thomas, an honorary alumnus and former Board of Visitors member, provided the symposium’s keynote address Friday morning, saying it was a joy to work on a project that reaches so deeply into the history of America and focuses on revealing truth.

“That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re almost forensic historians, everybody in this room,” he said. “I don’t care what your discipline may be. What we are trying to do in this moment is to go back and recover the history that has been lost of people that are so much intertwined in the building of America. 

“Everybody doesn’t understand the truth and because they don’t understand the truth, they proceed today on the basis of lies, which gets us nowhere. … We intend to draw on every possible discipline to do something that some people might think is mission impossible, and that is to recover the full and complete history of Black people in America.”

William & Mary has been working in recent years to uncover some of that history, with The Lemon Project playing a leading role. Just last year, the university completed its Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved, which recognizes the people who were enslaved by William & Mary during its formative years. Many of the names on that memorial were uncovered through The Lemon Project, with 13 new names added earlier this month.

The symposium culminated with a tour of that memorial. But the efforts described during the symposium continue, with those involved using every possible resource to continue revealing a more complete history of the university and country. 

“We are going to try to make this group and then others understand just how good we can be when we pull on all of the resources that we have, just how wonderful it might be for every voice in America to be heard, just how good America might become when they understand that the whole nation is involved in making this what we ought to be in America: ‘a more perfect union,’” said Thomas. 

See a full playlist of videos from the symposium on The Lemon Project’s YouTube channel.

, Senior Associate Director of University News