When Bethany Pace’s husband called her to say that Sweet Briar College was closing, she thought she must not have heard him correctly. Then she froze, in the middle of a Maryland grocery store, people pushing past her, her daughter confused, tugging at her sleeve.
“I think I went into a sort of dream sequence,” Pace said. “I just couldn’t process it.”
She didn’t go to school there. She doesn’t have children there. But her heart seized up because of what Sweet Briar means to her family: The college was built on the grounds of the plantation where her great-great-grandparents were slaves.
“I never can imagine it being anything other than Sweet Briar,” her cousin Annette Anderson said recently, with Pace murmuring agreement. “Because it’s part of us, and where we come from.”
Colleges are complex things, touching so many lives, in ways both mundane and profound. And so when one closes, the impact is at once stark and nuanced, obvious and entirely unexpected.
Most alumnae of the small private women’s college — best known for its elite equestrian program and idyllic campus, often stereotyped in the past as a sort of finishing school for wealthy Southern girls — know the school’s history. It was founded in 1901 in memory of a 16-year-old girl named Daisy. She was the only daughter of Indiana Fletcher Williams, who dedicated the sprawling Virginia estate started by her father Elijah Fletcher to establish a school for women. On Founders’ Day, students hike up Monument Hill, carrying daisies to lay at the elaborate carved monuments for the family.
But that plantation was not just home to one white family. And of all the slaves who lived and worked there over the years, some are Pace and Anderson’s close kin, James and Lavinia Fletcher.
And so when they heard about the college closing, Pace and Anderson immediately thought about their big family reunion, planned for August at Sweet Briar to commemorate the 160th anniversary of James and Lavinia Fletcher’s marriage. They wondered what would become of that.
They thought about their ancestors, all the places they lived and worked, and the cemetery where they believe they are buried. They thought of the historical documents that help tell their stories, such as the ways the slaves celebrated Christmas, warm summer nights playing banjo, and families split forever by sales and purchases.
They thought of the slave cabin, just by the former plantation house, still full of much of the original furniture, where the president lives. They wondered: Would all this family history be lost, sold to developers, forsaken?
Their own family story follows some of the sweep of American history, from slavery’s growing hold on the South, abolitionists’ horror, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Reconstruction, the Great Migration, to, more recently, the resurgence in interest in genealogy amongst many black families, the flare-up of racial incidents on college campuses, the attempts by some schools to recognize their past.
“We’re just now understanding our family.” Anderson said. “But it’s not just that. It’s part of something bigger.”
Driving past Sweet Briar as children on the way to family reunions – northern kids, rolling their eyes at being dragged to the sticks again – they were always told the family had a connection to Sweet Briar.
Some of the older generation didn’t have warm memories of the place, “coming out of slavery, coming out of Jim Crow, rural Virginia, racism,” Anderson said; they had long since moved north, moved west, moved away.
Growing up, they often heard the stories, about nights watching fireflies on the farm, about how, exactly, their dark-skinned family ended up with so many acres of farmland in Amherst County. They haven’t found historical evidence to answer that question, but family lore is full of stories about it.
Their cousin Jasper Fletcher was told that his great-grandfather James Fletcher was a skilled stonemason, and that Elijah Fletcher, the man who owned the plantation, was very kind to his slaves – by the skewed lens of the day — including allowing James Fletcher to keep some of the money he earned from other jobs. “So when emancipation came about he was able to purchase land for his family,” Jasper Fletcher said.
Pace and Anderson were told by many of their elders that he had been rewarded with the land: He had had a special role on the plantation, charged with siring as many children as possible to increase the value of the property.
As kids, these were just stories they heard. But becoming mothers stirred something in both of them. Anderson’s beloved grandfather died, and she thought about how he would always tell her: “’Granddaughter, family is everything.’ He would talk about the land, going down there, what it meant for our family to know where we came from.”
They started digging in, trying to find answers. “There’s an adage in the African-American community,” Anderson said, “that you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.”
Meanwhile, Lynn Rainville, a northerner who joined the Sweet Briar faculty in 2001, was struck with the school’s unusual past, curious about the plantation and the slaves who built it. She began to investigate, wanting to find, as she said, the forgotten voices of the 19th century.
Rainville, a research professor in the humanities, found in historical records a list of the more than 140 slaves Elijah Fletcher owned at the time of his death.
Two of those names confirmed the direct connection Pace and Anderson had always heard about.
And she found, in the story of Sweet Briar founder Indiana Fletcher Williams’s father, an iconic look at the insidious ways that slavery grew in the United States.
Elijah Fletcher journeyed south from Vermont in 1810 to become a teacher in Virginia. Along the way, he stopped at Monticello, and wrote in a letter, “’That story about Black Sal is no farce.’
“We know ‘Black Sal’ is Sally Hemings,” Rainville said, the woman owned by Thomas Jefferson who was believed to have borne six of his children.
Elijah Fletcher “is a northerner brought up by abolitionist-minded parents. His father was very against slavery. It was his first encounter with the institution, and he was horrified by it,” she said.
But not long after he settled in Amherst County in 1811, he married the daughter of a wealthy local family, and as a wedding gift, the couple was given an enslaved boy and girl to help maintain their household.
Over the years, they acquired almost a dozen slaves.
Then in the 1840s, he bought the land they named Sweet Briar, after a rose his wife loved.
That was when the slave population grew rapidly, to build and farm and maintain the plantation. In 1840 he owned 16 people. By 1850, 105.
After Elijah Fletcher died, 1860 probate records reflect that his daughter Indiana Fletcher Williams was given his slave Lavinia and her oldest son, Nelson.
According to the census, James and Lavinia went on to have many more children: Hammond, James, Nannie, Patrick Henry, Louisa (nicknamed Jane), Susan, Antonette, and Betty.
There are thousands of descendants.
Amongst the hourly wage-earners at the college, Rainville estimated that nearly a third are directly descended from Sweet Briar slaves.
“The continuity is just staggering,” she said.
Most, if not all, will lose their jobs by the end of August.
Before hearing the college was to close, Rainville had planned to write a book about those “invisible founders” of Sweet Briar. Now, she’s working on quickly producing online chapters in hopes of spurring interest in preserving the historic papers, sites, buildings and artifacts there.
She helped raise thousands of dollars to restore a slave cabin, one of 28 on the grounds, and opened it to the public.
A retired riding coach found a slave cemetery, which Rainville researched and confirmed. It has about 60 graves, most unmarked, some with simple stones.
College officials have said they do not yet know what will happen to the 3,000-plus acres of Sweet Briar’s campus after the school closes. Rainville is only certain of one thing: The human remains are protected by federal law. “It doesn’t matter if Donald Trump wants to come and build a hotel, he is not allowed to disturb them,” she said.
Many of the college’s buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but that is more of a recognition than a protection, Rainville said. She is working with college librarians to ensure documents are preserved.
The college closing is terribly sad for students, faculty, staff on many levels, Rainville said. “But what really is keeping me up at night now is the future of all of the historic sites at Sweet Briar,” she said.
After Rainville found the burial ground, several years ago, she and the college’s leaders invited descendants to campus to consecrate the cemetery. It was no longer covered with weeds — college maintenance workers volunteered more than 100 hours to clear the grounds — but an honored place.
Jasper Fletcher lifted his arms and led the family in prayer.
“The opportunity we had as a family, to walk across that land, see those stones. . .” Anderson said. She paused, fighting back tears. “So many African Americans can’t tell you where they come from. We do. We’re blessed to know.”
Their family went to the reception at the president’s house, which was bittersweet, she said, knowing it was the main house of the plantation, seeing the slave cabin nearby, and thinking of her great-great-great-grandfather.
“That James Fletcher took on the family name suggests that there may have been family pride even then in being connected to Eljiah Fletcher and Sweet Briar,” she said. “I’m so proud that our family has this connection with the land.”
And to read Elijah Fletcher’s letters, seeing his discomfort with slavery change over the years, “here again our family history is tied to the broader history of America. It’s about how people were wrestling with the issues of the day,” she said.
“It’s a very complicated relationship African Americans have with slavery,” Pace said. “Oftentimes great misery is associated with it. But there can be great pride,” she said, especially as she thinks about her ancestors’ courage and strength, and what they contributed to the college and the country.
“That’s what Sweet Briar represents to our family.”
Jasper Fletcher has always felt pride, too. As a boy growing up a few miles down the road – he is one of the last family members owning James Fletcher’s land — he often visited family members who were working at Sweet Briar, and tramped through the grounds to fish in the well-kept lakes. “It’s a beautiful place,” he said.
He knows many don’t want to think about it, or think only about the hatefulness of slavery.
“If you don’t know from whence you come – you believe what everyone tells you rather than what actually occurs — that’s the way prejudice is built,” he said.
“It’s a joyful place to me,” he said, “because I knew that – even though we did not get recognition for it – that we helped build it. Our foreparents did.”
The school has been so welcoming to their family, Pace and Anderson said; they had just been talking, last month, about how they would like it if their daughters went to Sweet Briar College.
Then the news broke.
Their first step was a practical one: Did they need to find another site for the reunion? They called Sweet Briar staff members who were as shocked and overwhelmed as they were, but said they had been told that all events through Aug. 25 could happen as planned.
The James and Lavinia Fletcher family reunion was booked for Aug. 6-9.
“It’s providential,” Anderson said.
The next day, employees at the inn called them back: They had had such a surge in reservations for the reunion in the past hours that the hotel was full, and they were going to need a dorm as well.
Now she knows why her grandfather kept on her to not let that family story go, Anderson said. If any good could come of the college closing, she said, maybe it would encourage others to look into their past. “Our family story is really a microcosm of the larger story around racial relations in this country and how far we’ve come,” she said.
Sweet Briar represents, for her, “the intention to move beyond that past, and forge a future together.”
Pace keeps thinking about the future, as well. “There’s so much emotion for parents leaving their children at college for the first time,” she said. She keeps coming back to the idea of seeing her daughters studying at Sweet Briar, “where the lives of their ancestors were so different – so that they could do something so much bigger.
“My heart is full, really, thinking about that.
“It’s what I had hoped for. It’s what I still hope.”