As William & Mary honors enslaved people, records help tell stories

A rendering of the Memorial to the Enslaved at William & Mary in Williamsburg.

Jajuan Johnson didn’t know much about “Mr. Carter’s boy.”

The entry was listed in a William & Mary bursar’s report from the 1754-55 academic year. At that point in the school’s history, it was not uncommon for students to bring enslaved people with them to campus.

“We didn’t expect to find anything about this person,” said Johnson, a postdoctoral research associate with the Lemon Project, an effort at the Virginia university to understand its relationship with slavery. But clues emerged in the will of George Braxton II, revealing that he sent his sons George and Carter to William & Mary with a body servant named London.

Lemon Project researchers have been digging for this kind of information for years, mining tax records, wills, deeds and other centuries-old documents for details about the 199 people who were enslaved at William & Mary. Those individuals — enslaved by administrators, professors, students and the college itself — were memorialized in a monument unveiled Saturday afternoon.

In a ceremony at the Williamsburg campus, President Katherine A. Rowe said that acknowledging the painful truth of the school’s 329-year history creates an opportunity for unity. “We have much work still to do at William & Mary,” Rowe said. “Yet by naming plainly the dehumanization of those enslaved here, and their agency as human beings, this memorial begins to fulfill our collective responsibility.”

London is among those named on the memorial. Researchers don’t know how old he was when he arrived at William & Mary or whether he had children of his own, but Johnson said he may have been enslaved by Carter Braxton until he was sold in 1784.

“Throughout the process of searching, there are these glimmers of hope that keep you motivated and keep you pushing,” Johnson said about the information uncovered about London.

William & Mary, after its founding in 1693, relied heavily on slave labor, said Sarah E. Thomas, the Lemon Project’s associate director. The project was named for a man the school once enslaved. Some of the people enslaved at the school worked on campus. Others lived and worked at Nottoway Quarter, the school’s tobacco plantation.

“William & Mary has owned slaves for more years than it hasn’t,” Thomas said. ″I think that we view The Lemon Project and our work as a reparative effort, and one that is one step of many efforts that William & Mary needs to do to move forward.”

Enslaved people built the Wren Building, the oldest college building on any U.S. campus, according to William & Mary. They were assigned a host of responsibilities, including delivering fresh water to students’ rooms, emptying bedchamber pots, cleaning stables, cooking meals and running errands, according to Jody Lynn Allen, director of the Lemon Project and an assistant professor of history.

In its charter, William & Mary was to receive a penny per every pound of tobacco collected in Maryland and Virginia, Thomas said. “William & Mary profited from the labor of enslaved people all the way through the Civil War,” she added. “You can’t have William & Mary without enslaved people.”

Dozens of schools have devoted resources in recent years to investigating their relationships with slavery. Universities Studying Slavery, a consortium of schools led by the University of Virginia, has nearly 100 members.

This body of research that implicates dozens of the country’s oldest and wealthiest universities as participants in the institution of slavery is growing. Officials, as well as faculty and students, are trying to navigate a path forward.

On campuses including William & Mary and George Mason University, memorials have been erected. Harvard University – after divulging last month that former leaders, faculty and staff enslaved 79 people – pledged $100 million to redress the injustices.

At Georgetown University, officials have pledged to support the descendants of 272 enslaved people who were sold in the 19th century to help the school pay off its debts.

It’s a movement that likely started at Brown University, Allen said, when its former president commissioned a group to explore the school’s history.

“As the word started getting out, people started wondering,” Allen said. In 2006, Brown released a report that detailed its relationship to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. Soon after, William & Mary students and faculty called for an investigation into the school’s past.

“This is long past due that William & Mary recognize the people who literally built the earlier campus and maintained it, and were never compensated for it,” Allen said. With the memorial, “they can’t ever be hidden back in the archives anymore.”

Stephen Salpukas/ William & Mary
The Memorial to the Enslaved on the William & Mary campus on May, 5th, 2022 in Williamburg, Va.

The memorial will feature 94 names of people enslaved at the university. “We still don’t know a lot about the individuals,” Allen said. She calls the remaining 105 people “citings in the record” because they are referred to only by details such as occupation or gender.

Although the memorial was dedicated this weekend, it is far from complete, Thomas said. Researchers hope to add more names to the structure as they continue to learn more about the people it aims to memorialize.

“If we withhold the truth and we choose not to acknowledge them, I just don’t think we’re living up to our mission,” Johnson said. “This will be a constant reminder for us to push harder for the democracy that we hope to have.”