William and Mary Aims to Atone for Role in Slavery

Lekan Oguntoyinbo, Diverse Education, June 4, 2013

He was known as Lemon. For years he toiled in the cotton fields owned by the College of William and Mary. The school used proceeds from the fields as financial aid for young White male students from poor homes.

When the Virginia college sold the cotton fields in the early 1800s, Lemon was one of the few out of the 17 slaves who worked the fields redeployed to the college campus in Williamsburg. The others were sold. Lemon presumably worked there until his death in 1817.

Little else is known about him. Not his last name nor his survivors.

But a few years ago when William and Mary, the nation’s second-oldest university and, for centuries, the leading intellectual champion of Southern causes, including slavery and segregation, decided to atone for its past deeds, college officials picked Lemon as a symbol.

In 2009, seeking to address the wrongs against African-Americans, the college’s board of visitors passed a resolution acknowledging that William and Mary “owned and exploited slave labor from its founding to the Civil War and that it had failed to take a stand against segregation during the Jim Crow Era.”

The board’s action followed resolutions by the student and faculty groups that asked the college to investigate its history in race relations and its role in slave labor.

And the Lemon Project was born.

Repentance project

“The Lemon Project – A Journey of Reconciliation” is a long-term research project aimed at better understanding, chronicling and preserving the history of Blacks at the college and in the community.

It is a multi-faceted scholarly and community outreach effort that organizers hope will ultimately bridge the chasm between the college and African-Americans, many of whom have historically felt antagonized by the college and its surrounding communities. It is reminiscent of efforts taken by several other prominent colleges, including Brown and Emory, to formally repent of their roles in slavery or the slave trade.

Although little is known about Lemon, the leaders of the project chose to name the program after him because the little data on him embodies the countless nameless slaves exploited by the college for 170 years.

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In the years since the board of visitors passed the resolution, the leaders of the Lemon Project have launched an oral history project with the objective of getting African-American alumni and community members to share recollections of their relationship with the college. There are annual symposiums that include the presentation of papers by scholars and discussions by faculty, staff, students and members of the community.

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Slavery apologists

William and Mary was the intellectual center of Virginia and the genteel South, an unabashed apologist for slavery and Jim Crow. {snip}

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Unlike many high-profile universities in the South, William and Mary began admitting its first Black students in 1951. But to hear many of the earliest Black students tell it, in those early days the college was not particularly welcoming. Blacks were not allowed to live on campus until 1967.

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The college has tried to revamp its image in recent decades. It has stepped up recruiting of Black students and faculty. It has also created an Africana Studies Department. Black enrollment has grown steadily, rising to about 7 percent. Overall minority enrollment is about 28 percent, according to Dr. Chon Glover, the school’s first chief diversity officer.

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