The College of William & Mary is seeking ideas for a memorial to black Americans who were enslaved by the school or whose work as slaves enriched it.
The public university in Williamsburg, Va., 150 miles south of Washington, announced an open competition for memorial concepts as part of the school’s ongoing effort to address its historical reliance on slavery.
“This memorial is such an important project for our community,” President Katherine A. Rowe said in a statement. “African-Americans have been vital to William & Mary since its earliest days. Even as they suffered under slavery, African-Americans helped establish the university and subsequently maintained it.”
Founded in 1693, William & Mary is the country’s second-oldest university — only Harvard is older — and for more than half of its existence, it relied on slave labor and participated in the buying and selling of enslaved people, according to university documents.
The memorial project continues work that began in 2007 when a student assembly resolution called on the university to research its history of slavery and make the information public, said Jody L. Allen, an assistant professor of history at the university and director of the Lemon Project, which explores William & Mary’s role as a slaveholder and, later, a supporter of Jim Crow laws.
The establishment of a memorial is important, Allen said, because the contributions of enslaved people at the school have been ignored, and the school’s legacy of slavery needs to be continuously addressed.
“If you have an infection and stop taking antibiotics, the infection is always going to come back,” Allen said in an interview. “These issues haven’t gone away because we haven’t talked about them.”
According to a university study, the school’s creation was a result of slave labor on tobacco farms in Virginia and Maryland. In the school’s charter, King William and Queen Mary called for the college to be funded by revenue from those farms.
Although the exact number of African Americans who were enslaved by the school is not known, there were enough to provide all of the manual labor on campus through much of the 18th century, according to the report.
Students attending the school often brought their personal slaves to do chores. Records also show that the college regularly bought and sold slaves or, later, hired them out from their owners to do work on campus. Enslaved people continued to work there until the Civil War.
In April, William & Mary’s Board of Visitors issued a lengthy apology for the school’s history of slavery, saying, in part, “The Board profoundly regrets these activities, apologizes for them, expresses its deep appreciation for the contributions made by the African American members of its community to the vitality of William & Mary then, now, and for all time coming, and commits to continue our efforts to remedy the lingering effects of past injustices.”
The deadline for submitting ideas for the proposal is Oct. 12. Submissions will be judged by a nine-member panel that will select three ideas and submit them to Rowe for consideration. She will determine which idea to present to the Board of Visitors at its meeting in February.
Allen said it was important that the proposal process for the memorial be open to everyone and not just professional architects and designers, to allow for as much diversity as possible.
“We want anyone who has a concept that they can explain to submit,” she said. “If we go into this process with an idea of what we’re looking for, then maybe we’re going to miss the best pieces.”
Colleges and universities in the south and north have in recent years attempted to grapple with their role as slave owners or beneficiaries of the slave trade. In the book “Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities,” Craig Steven Wilder, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explores the deep links between American institutions of higher learning and how “they became rooted in the slave economies of the colonial world.”
Georgetown University apologized last year for selling 272 enslaved people to keep the university afloat in 1838 and is still determining how best to reckon with that history. Harvard, the University of Virginia, Princeton and Columbia are among the growing number of schools that have disclosed their connections to slavery.
For Allen, having a memorial to enslaved people who helped William & Mary thrive is not the culmination of a process, but the beginning.
“The school is 325 years old, and we’re not going to fix that history with one piece,” she said. “But it’s an important part of remembering and understanding that history.”