Lonnie G. Bunch III only gets on a plane after getting his shoes shined. It’s part of his routine, a superstition of sorts, as he prepares for each flight.

Ahead of one of those flights, the person shining his shoes recognized him as the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. He told Bunch to keep the $8 for the shoeshine and put it toward the museum.

When Bunch – who now leads the entire Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum, education and research complex – started to object, the man stopped him saying, “Don’t you know that if you do your job right, this museum might help my grandchildren understand what life did to me and what I did to life?’

“To me, even though I never saw that man again, his words have haunted me in the best way,” Bunch told attendees of William & Mary’s Charter Day ceremony. 

A recap of W&M’s 2024 Charter Day celebration

Bunch, secretary of Smithsonian Institution, reflected on the power and purpose of history as the keynote speaker for William & Mary’s 2024 Charter Day, held Feb. 9 in Kaplan Arena. The annual tradition celebrates the university’s founding 331 years ago and offers an opportunity for the community to reflect on William & Mary’s past while keeping an eye toward its future, guided by its strategic plan and core values.

“What history does more than anything else is it challenges us to live up to [Abraham] Lincoln’s desire for a more perfect union,” said Bunch. “Embracing the complicated past helps us realize that there is nothing more powerful than a people, than a nation steeped in its history. And there’s nothing more noble than honoring all of our ancestors by remembering.”

Commonly regarded as William & Mary’s “birthday,” this year’s Charter Day festivities included several celebrations, including the successful completion of the All In campaign, the conclusion of the Brafferton’s anniversary and the continuation of the Year of the Arts through the end of the calendar year.

“We are a community that knows the importance of taking time to pause and gather, in person — to honor everyone who makes this place extraordinary,” said President Katherine A. Rowe. 

Honors and special guests

In addition to serving as speaker, Bunch also received an honorary degree at the ceremony, along with former W&M Rector Jeffrey B. Trammell ’73, a leader in strategic counseling, politics and education and advocate for LGBTQ rights. Several other members of the William & Mary community were honored at the ceremony and events throughout the weekend, including the Green & Gold Bash and Alumni Medallion & Service Awards ceremony. A separate event was held earlier this month to honor the recipients of the Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe awards.

Among the special guests at the event were a number of local tribal leaders and representatives from the Drapers’ Company of London, which provides support for student scholarships at William & Mary. 

Chancellor Robert M. Gates ’65, L.H.D. ’98 also participated. Earlier in the week, he met with students and participated in a public discussion on “American Grand Strategy.”

During his Charter Day remarks, Gates emphasized the importance of the open exchange of ideas, freedom of expression and the pursuit of wisdom with respect for differing views. 

“These principles ground the William & Mary community in belonging, respect and mutual care,” Gates said. “They also comprise the pillars of our democratic society, enabling us to rise above the  coarseness and closed-mindedness that too often characterize our public discourse.”

Democracy is among the four main initiatives of William & Mary’s Vision 2026 strategic plan, and belonging and respect are among the university’s core values.

“Ceaseless striving to know the world and to make it a better place for each other constitutes the essence of the William & Mary experience,” Gates added. 

“I have no doubt that today’s graduates and scholars of William & Mary have a special role in the American quest. We have a special obligation to embrace that quest as an opportunity as well as a responsibility. That is the challenge that lies before us, one for which William & Mary has been preparing its students for 331 years.”

The power of history

During this time of extreme partisanship, history should not be feared, Bunch said.

“But we need to embrace the past, and we need to be made better by the knowledge that we have been shaped by this history,” he said.

Bunch’s Charter Day remarks

Earlier in the day, Bunch attended a working lunch with the staff of Strategic Cultural Partnerships and representatives from the Muscarelle Museum of Art and The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation where he spoke about his career in museums and discussed the future of museums and cultural heritage sites. He also visited the Williamsburg Bray School and Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved and talked with the faculty and staff involved with The Lemon Project, an ongoing effort to uncover the university’s history of slavery and racial discrimination and to work toward reconciliation. 

“I have been so taken by the power of the impact of history, and I’ve been so moved by how you as William & Mary are grappling with this,” Bunch said. “To me, it’s essential that these actions are not seen as simple restorative justice or ancillary actions that support the main story, but rather the embrace of history.  

“The embrace of African American History, the embrace of Native American history is central to understanding who William & Mary is; it’s essential to understanding who we are as Americans. In essence, I would argue that what history reminds us is that regardless of whether your family was here for 250 years or got here 20 minutes ago, you are shaped by this story.”

The full 2024 Charter Day ceremony

It’s important to understand the history that is well-loved, but it is equally important to dig deeply into the history “that reminds us that we have a lot to do,” said Bunch.

“Ultimately, for me, when I think about the power of history, the power of memory, I realize that what history really is, it’s a mirror to America. It’s a reason to understand that history is so important and so vital because it’s a mirror that challenges us clearly and candidly, reminds us that despite all of what we’ve achieved, despite all of our ideals, America is still a work in progress.

“It is a mirror that makes those who are invisible, more visible. It is a mirror that gives voice to those who are silent. It’s a mirror that says let us live up to the founding ideals of this nation. Let us celebrate and revel but let us also live up to those ideals.”

The Year of the Arts

As part of remembering its past during this Charter Day, the university reflected on its history with the arts and its momentum for the future with the opening of the Arts Quarter and a greater emphasis on the power of the arts in education.

William & Mary is thought to be the first university formally to teach the arts, said Rowe. Now, approximately one-third of all William & Mary students participate in the arts every year. Through the Year of the Arts, launched last fall, the university is celebrating “all of the creative beings at this university – past, present and future,” Rowe said. 

The opening video for the Charter Day ceremony highlighted the role of the arts at William & Mary.

A self-described “lifelong theater person,” Rowe recalled dropping in on a number of student shows throughout the year, from choral performances to an improv comedy showcase. She also reflected on the words of Glenn Close ’74, D.A. ’89, H.F. ’19 as the world-renowned actress attended the naming of Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall’s main stage in her honor last fall. Close said that arriving at William & Mary as a student was “the water to my desert.”

“Anyone who has ever attended a play or a gallery opening knows that feeling of being stretched, challenged and fulfilled that she talked about that evening,” said Rowe. “Participating in the arts is especially powerful when it’s shared. When you can debrief, talk about, wrestle with the dynamic relationship that forms between artist and audience. It stretches you to listen and to see from different perspectives. It builds connection and fuels curiosity and lays the basis for common ground. It is essential to maturation as a wise human being and to civic growth of a community.”

Rowe thanked all who continue to help the arts thrive at the university, from alumni, faculty, staff and students to the Commonwealth of Virginia, which provided funding for renovation of Phi Beta Kappa Hall and the construction of the Music Arts Center.

Throughout the Charter Day ceremony, attendees were able to see some of the arts in action with a video and poem created by University Marketing and performances by the William & Mary Choir, Wind Ensemble and the Cleftomaniacs a capella group. After announcing that the Year of the Arts would be extended through the end of 2024, Rowe encouraged the campus community to take advantage of the many planned performances and other arts-related events.

“It could be a workshop. It could be a performance. It could be a reading. It could be a reading. It could be participatory,” Rowe said. “Whatever is your jive, you need to be there.”

, Senior Associate Director of University News