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Category: Geneaology

Researching Rev. L.W. Wales, Jr.

by Olivia Blackshire, an Independent Study student with Dr. Jody Allen

When I started an independent study with Dr. Allen, I was not quite sure what to expect. I was familiar with research papers and searching databases; however, being on assignment for the serious inquiries of a family was a big deal. For the next 15 weeks, I spent time ̶ at the request of Ms. Wilhelmina White ̶ researching the life and times of the Wales family, specifically L.W. Wales, Jr. Both Rev. Wales, Sr., and Rev. Wales, Jr., were activists and leaders in this community, and surrounding their lives was an eagerness to know how they impacted the world around them. Filled with excitement and a responsibility to piece together the family’s story in Williamsburg, I began my research.

I found the story of Rev. Wales, Jr., by first reading about the man who set the foundation for his life, his father. L.W. Wales, Sr. (1860 – 1927) was not only a pastor at Mt. Ararat Baptist Church for 42 years, but was also a pillar of the community. As principal of Williamsburg Public School Number Two and a teacher in various counties, he was active in the educational realm and perhaps planted the seed for Bruton Heights School, an all-Black high school, since he talked about that and about plans for funding in his Brief Autobiographical Sketch.[1] He also published a leaflet called The Peninsula Churchman, which detailed his church work and school-building efforts. He rubbed elbows with lots of people, including Benjamin S. Ewell, a former Confederate general and former president of William & Mary.[2] Furthermore, L.W. Wales, Sr. was financially well off; tax records showed that he was one of the highest earners in his area[3], and he “succeeded in buying a considerable amount of real estate, holding and owning some in almost every section of the city of Williamsburg and some in Newport News.”[4]

Considering such a track record, L. W. Wales, Jr., (1895-19654) had big shoes to fill. Although his legacy was not like his father’s, he made an impact. Picking up the mantle as pastor after his father’s death in 1927, Rev. Wales, Jr. worked for Mt. Ararat for 36 years, doing much for the relocation and beautification of the church during his tenure.[5] According to the 1982 Mt. Ararat Baptist Church Centennial Anniversary Souvenir, Rev. Wales Jr., worked within schools alongside his wife, Evelyn Wales. A report by historian Linda H. Rowe describes him as an advocate for the construction of James City Training School, a predecessor of Bruton Heights School.[6] He too even made his mark in real estate, having enough property to create the Wales subdivision housing for low- and moderate-income families in the 1940s.[7]

There were a lot of memorable moments from this search. Anytime I’d find new information, especially an image, I always felt like I was discovering more pieces to the puzzle. I’m also grateful for the people I met along the way, like Sidney (a graduate student working with the Lemon Project), Earl T. Granger III (Colonial Williamsburg’s Chief Developmental Officer), and Clifford B. Fleet III (Colonial Williamsburg President and CEO) during a trip to the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library.

Two significant thoughts come to mind as I reflect on my studies with Dr. Allen. For one, history is a form of detective work. Sometimes the whole thing feels like you’re trying to crack a cold case. You’re digging through information that’s been mistreated (physically in the archive or historically through erasure), and the clues you need are not always readily available. Interpreting or making connections with limited time or facts is a tall order. Yet those who take on the challenge may be the only ones preventing someone’s story from fading into obscurity.

I also found that if one works in this field, one must be flexible to change; sometimes the search doesn’t end the way you expect, and that’s okay. Although I didn’t find or get through as much as I wanted, I still managed to learn about the church’s history and the Wales’ place in it and the surrounding communities. You may not find what you’re looking for, but the process you take to get there, and the things you find along the way, are just as rewarding. Those quotes about the journey being better than the destination may have some merit after all.


[1] Herbert and Doris Crump Rainey Papers, 1945-2013, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, William and Mary.

[2] Brief Autobiographical Sketch of the Life and Labors of Rev. L. W. Wales, D.D (1910) from Herbert and Doris Crump Rainey Papers, 1945-2013, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, William and Mary.

[3] James City County and Williamsburg City Personal Property Books, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary.

[4] Brief Autobiographical Sketch of the Life and Labors of Rev. L. W. Wales, D.D (1910) from Herbert and Doris Crump Rainey Papers, 1945-2013, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, William and Mary.

[5] Herbert and Doris Crump Rainey Papers, 1945-2013, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, William and Mary.

[6] “A History of Black Education and Bruton Heights School, Williamsburg, Virginia” by Linda Rowe (1997). https://research.colonialwilliamsburg.org/DigitalLibrary/view/index.cfm?doc=ResearchReports%5CRR0373.xml&highlight=negro

[7] Williamsburg Reunion Booklet (2012) from Herbert and Doris Crump Rainey Papers, 1945-2013, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, William and Mary.

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Mellon Foundation Fellow Represents Lemon Project in German Professional Exchange

Mellon Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow Dr. Jajuan Johnson is part of a cohort of fifteen experts dedicated to promoting an inclusive and progressive culture of remembrance in public spaces in Germany and the United States. Building a Diverse Culture of Remembrance (DAICOR) is an exchange program whereby participants explore how diversity, equity, and inclusion are implemented in memorial cultures.

Jajuan Johnson and Awet Tesfaiesus

During the Germany learning tour, Dr. Johnson introduced the Lemon Project as a model for reckoning with slavery and its legacies at higher education institutions to the cohort of artists, educators, activists, and nonprofit leaders. He also discussed service-learning as an intervention for understaffed cultural institutions doing reparative archival work and community-engaged research with citizens focused on decolonizing the public history landscape in Berlin and Hamburg.  

Jajuan Johnson and Hannimari Jokinen

The one-week visit involved conversations with political leaders such as Awet Tesfaiesus, the first Black woman elected to the German Parliament serving as Chairwoman of the Committee for Culture and Media. In addition to touring sites such as the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum and the Museum of Ethnology in Hamburg (MARKK), the fellows met with local civic actors with organizations such as Decolonial Memory Culture in the City, is a model project that aims to explore and make visible the past and present of the (anti-)colonial in Berlin, the rest of Germany and in Germany’s former colonies with the help of experts and activists worldwide.

The trip concluded with a lecture and discussion with artist and curator Hannimari Jokinen on the function of post-colonial memorials and strategies for reckoning with troubled pasts through community-engaged interpretation, as is reflected in the goals of Hearth Memorial to the Enslaved. As we collectively envisioned the uses of memorial sites, we agreed they are to be changeable, fluid, and provoking conversations that strengthen democratic societies. 

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At the Root: Exploring Black Life, History, and Culture Symposium Call for Proposals

The Lemon Project team invites you to submit proposals for the 13th Annual Lemon Project Spring Symposium, an in-person and virtual event, that will be held on March 24-25, 2023. View the Call for Proposals below.

About The Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation

Founded in 2009 by the William & Mary Board of Visitors, the Lemon Project is the second institutionally funded project of its kind in the United States. The Lemon Project is a multifaceted and dynamic attempt to rectify wrongs perpetrated against African Americans by William & Mary through action or inaction. An ongoing endeavor, The Lemon Project explores and encourages scholarship on the 330-year relationship between African Americans and William & Mary. The Lemon Project builds bridges between William & Mary and African American communities through research, programming, and supporting students, faculty, and staff.

Call for Proposals

Individual papers or panels of 3 or 4 are welcome

The first Lemon Project Spring Symposium, held in Williamsburg, Virginia in 2011, “brought together students, faculty, and community members to discuss ongoing research into our past, as well as the ways that history continues to define relationships between African Americans and the university in the present.” In that vein, we return to our roots, centering local Black histories and their vast influences.  

The 2023 Spring Symposium will explore the following questions: In what ways are African American communities taking charge and telling their stories? How are colleges and universities working with local African American communities to foster belonging? What methods are communities and scholars using to tell fuller narratives of African American life, history, and culture? In what ways are researchers contributing to the emancipatory aims of Black Studies through research collaboration with Black communities?

Our symposium is multi-disciplinary and open to all. We seek proposals from people who focus on Black life, history, and culture, including but not limited to academic and descendant researchers, educators, activists, and members of Greater Williamsburg communities and beyond. We invite a broad range of topics from the fields of American Studies, Black Studies, Anthropology, History, Public Humanities, Preservation, and STEM. We also invite community organizers and activists to submit proposals in areas such as cultural production (art, poetry, music), wellness, and spirituality. We welcome submissions from people of all genders, including trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming individuals.

Please submit your proposals by November 18, 2022.

The symposium has three main objectives, focusing on the past, present, and future:
  • Reflect on what is happening in African American communities and consider the ways these communities are transforming narratives
  • Explore the ways that colleges and universities work with African American communities
  • Contribute to strategies and best practices for institutions dealing with their involvement in slavery and its legacies
 Possible topics include but are not limited to:
  • African American memory and heritage studies
  • Community engagement and best practices
  • Descendant communities and their histories
  • Environmental history, land conservation, and displacement
  • Family histories, local histories, and genealogical studies
  • Reparations and reparative efforts
  • Shared Authority and transforming narratives
  • Universities and colleges studying slavery and its afterlives
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Lemon Project Partner Receive State Historic Site Designation

By Jajuan Johnson, Ph.D., Mellon Postdoctoral Research Associate

The Oak Grove Baptist Church Historic District in northwest York County, Virginia was granted historic designation by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources leading up to the Juneteenth, a national holiday commemorating the ending of slavery, specifically in Texas on June 19, 1865. Placement on the state register of historic places and eligibility for national recognition is monumental in the church’s history dating back to the early 19th century. The following sites are associated with the Oak Grove Baptist Church Historic District: Oak Grove Baptist Church site on Rochambeau Drive, Oak Grove School site, Oak Grove Cemetery on Rochambeau Drive, and the current Oak Grove Baptist Church on Waller Mill Road.

The Lemon Project collaboration with Oak Grove Baptist Church emerged from the research of Ellie Renshaw, a recent graduate of the anthropology department. Her senior thesis, “Cultivation Through Excavation: Performing Community and Partnership in the Historic First Baptist Project” led to further revelations about “daughter churches” of the Historic First Baptist Church such as Oak Grove Baptist Church, St. John Baptist Church, New Quarter Baptist Church and Zion Baptist Church, all in the Williamsburg/York County area. She connected our team with Mrs. Collette Roots, a leader of the Friends of Oak Grove Baptist Church, a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring the church building, the two cemeteries tied to the church, and the history of the once Cooktown community where the church is currently located.

The church building and some members were once part of Magruder, a community of African Americans forcibly displaced during World War II to create Camp Peary, a military training ground. The series of forcible removals due to eminent domain resulted in the loss of place and community identity. Last fall, the church members invited Lemon Project researchers to assist with documenting its story through oral history. Generations of parishioners living and deceased were employed by William & Mary and are a critical part of the university’s history. A series of oral histories on the travesty of land loss, the disbanding of communities, and the dynamics of labor and class are unearthing stories tethered to the afterlives of slavery not only specific to Williamsburg but across the nation. Also, Derek Vouri-Richard, a Lemon Project American Studies Graduate Assistant, mined land records to trace the history of land ownership tied to Oak Grove Baptist Church during the turn of the twentieth century.

Recently, the Friends of Oak Grove Baptist Church provided a tour of the church and the historic cemetery, highlighting veteran burial sites dating back to the Civil War, for the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Community Curation team partnering with the Lemon Project to assist African American communities in curating their own stories. In keeping with the Lemon Project’s goal to be a national model of transformative community engagement and collaborative research, we continue to listen to the stories and assess the ways we can contribute to materializing the vision of our partners. Congratulations to Oak Grove Baptist Church Historic District on cementing its enduring legacy in the York County/Williamsburg area.

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The Dedication of Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved

By Dr. Sarah Thomas, Associate Director, The Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation

William & Mary celebrated the dedication of Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved on May 7, 2022. We are excited to share with you photos and the video from the event. Thank you to Skip Rowland, ’83 for the photos and Jeff Herrick and his team for the video.

Dr. Jody Allen at the dedication of Hearth, William & Mary’s Memorial to the Enslaved, taken Saturday afternoon May 7, 2022 (Skip Rowland, ’83)
Dr. Chon Glover at the dedication of Hearth, William & Mary’s Memorial to the Enslaved, taken Saturday afternoon May 7, 2022 (Skip Rowland, ’83)
The Legacy Three at the dedication of Hearth, William & Mary’s Memorial to the Enslaved, taken Saturday afternoon May 7, 2022 (Skip Rowland, ’83)
Images of the dedication of Hearth, William & Mary’s Memorial to the Enslaved, taken Saturday afternoon May 7, 2022 (Skip Rowland)
Images of the dedication of Hearth, William & Mary’s Memorial to the Enslaved, taken Saturday afternoon May 7, 2022 (Skip Rowland)
Dr. Hermine Pinson and Thomas Alexander at the dedication of Hearth, William & Mary’s Memorial to the Enslaved, taken Saturday afternoon May 7, 2022 (Skip Rowland, ’83)
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Training Future History Makers: Lemon’s Learners 2021 Summer Camp

Lemon’s Learners Video, produced by the Studio of Teaching and Learning’s Roy Peterson and Sabrina Schaeffer

By Jajuan Johnson, Ph.D., Mellon Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow

In partnership with James Blair Middle School, the Lemon Project guided over a dozen students in genealogical research and exploring African American history in the Historic Triangle area. The camp, held July 13 – 15, 2021, had the theme “Black History Matters.” One of the main goals of the camp was for students to have a tangible experience with history through interaction with primary sources, family stories, and scientific experimentation.  

The camp kicked off with students participating in a DNA experiment using strawberries led by William & Mary’s Biology department professor Dr. Shanta’ Hinton and her laboratory graduate students. Archivists from Special Collections at William & Mary’s Swem Library brought history alive with a mix of 18th and 19th-century photos, documents, and books at exhibit stations.

Genealogical research was a significant component of the camp. The learners received two days of intense training on the importance of genealogical research, ways to find documents on databases, such as Ancestry.com, and tips on interviewing family members. An essential partner in the process of family history instruction was Williamsburg Regional Library. WRL’s Reference Librarian Rachel Nelson guided students in accessing the research databases and discussed other resources available at the library, such as library hot spots and telescopes.

The camp culminated with a special showcase of their family history research projects. There are so many beautiful highlights to write about, but we encourage you to check out the video below to hear and see firsthand the transformative experiences of our learners. We are looking for hosting future summer programs where students will have the opportunity to spend time on our historic campus.

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When Past Meets Present: Collaborative Genealogical Research to Find Enslaved Ancestors and Starting the Conversation about Repair

by Dr. Jajuan Johnson and Vicki McGill

The Lemon Project Genealogy Initiative started in fall 2021 to locate enslaved persons directly or indirectly tied to William & Mary. To date, we’ve hosted numerous workshops for beginner and advanced genealogists, trained a group of budding family historians at James Blair Middle School, and built relationships with descendants of the enslaved in the Historic Triangle area and beyond. 

The genealogy initiative is part of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded project called “Sharing Authority to Remember and Re-interpret the Past.” The program builds on the research and community engagement of the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation. In 2009, the college established the project to “acknowledge and rectify wrongs against African Americans at W&M, whether through action or inaction.” Since its inception, the Lemon Project contributed to a greater understanding of the university’s role in slavery while creating fuller narratives of the enslaved. 

Finding research clues about enslaved persons of the 17th and 18th centuries is a feat that requires a host of stakeholders, from archivists to descendants. Our method of learning more about the enslaved and their familial connections begins with the list of persons we are continuing to find in historical records, from bursar’s reports to church records. Recently, we’ve gained clues from a research inquiry of a relative searching for an ancestor possibly in our list of enslaved persons. 

The genealogy research method is not only potentially reparative in helping us learn more about the lives of free, freed, and enslaved persons, but it also empowers descendants unearthing details about ancestors relegated to the shadows of history. Perusing census records, tax records, and family papers in special collections enables descendants to correct deliberate historical omissions and write African Americans into history.

Genealogy research is a collective enterprise between fellow genealogists, archivists, family members, community historians, and institutions engaging in similar work. William and Mary is affiliated with the Universities Studying Slavery (USS) consortium, which provides a forum for institutions to develop best practices in “truth-telling projects addressing human bondage and racism in institutional histories.” Upon starting this post-doctoral research project, I’ve collaborated with Dr. Shelley Murphy with the Descendant Project Research at the University of Virginia, creating research methodologies, delving into newly digitized records, and connecting with descendant researchers.

A few months ago, I was introduced to descendant researcher Vicki McGill by Dr. Murphy. Vicki searched for ancestors enslaved in Williamsburg by Mary Stith, the daughter of William & Mary’s third president, Reverend William Stith. Our joint effort led to new information providing a greater understanding about her ancestors and slavery in the Historic Triangle area in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As part of this research initiative, I’ve invited Vicki to join me in sharing her story about finding more records about her enslaved ancestors and the challenging but worthwhile process of doing this type of research. 

Vicki McGill on Finding Benjamin White, Sr. and Benjamin White, Jr. 

Lemon’s Legacies Porch Talk, featuring Vicki McGill & the Hundley History Committee, Vicki Simons & Kristen Allen

I often spend Friday evenings searching the Freedmen’s Bureau archives and other records as part of Dr. Shelley Murphy’s “Freedmen Friday” group on Zoom. One evening I decided to submit my fourth and fifth grandfather’s ancestors Benjamin White and Benjamin White Jr., who showed up as enslaved people held by a woman named Mary Stith who lived in Williamsburg, Virginia. 

During an intake session with Dr. Murphy, I shared a research report from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library on the Mary Stith Shop that mentioned Benjamin White and his son Benjamin White, Jr., census records indicating Williamsburg and, later, York County residence.

After sharing my findings with Dr. Murphy, I realized my ancestors resided closer to William & Mary than UVA, which led to the connection with Dr. Jajuan Johnson, who was doing the same work with the Lemon Project. The linkage demonstrates the importance of institutional collaboration in researching enslaved and freed persons. The referral to Dr. Johnson led to further discoveries expanding the narrative of my ancestors, especially learning about their indirect and direct linkages to the early leadership of W&M. 

Moving Through Research Barriers and New Discoveries

Learning the possible existence of a document listing your ancestor is a significant step in genealogy research. I encourage researchers to closely examine every record instead of relying on a transcription that may contain errors by the transcriber or omitted references about the document. The Mary Stith Shop report reveals she enslaved and emancipated Benjamin White. He later freed his son Benjamin White Jr. As mentioned, it’s essential to verify findings with other sources, which prompted Dr. Johnson and me to explore further. 

During a trip to the Library of Virginia, I was able to dive deeper into the records. After a couple of hours searching the York County Deeds of Emancipation on microfilm, I found records for both ancestors. Analyzing the deed for Benjamin Jr., I learned his father purchased his freedom from John Blair, Jr., which clarified the father and son were enslaved by two different families, which prompted questions about the connections between the two families. 

After sharing this discovery with Dr. Johnson, I inquired about the “Honorable John Blair” listed in the records. He responded by sharing that he was the nephew of James Blair, founder, and first president of William & Mary. Well, this was a significant breakthrough! Further research into Blair revealed my ancestor and countless other men, women, and children were enslaved by a man connected to the founding of this country. He was a delegate to the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787 and one of three Virginia delegates to sign the Constitution and later became an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.

The findings so far relate to the early lives of Benjamin White Jr. and his father. Recent clues include connections to Gowan Pamphlet, an early pastor of First Baptist Church of Williamsburg. Ultimately, I would like to determine how their descendant Richmond White, my third great grandfather, was born in Richmond, Virginia, around 1860, migrated to Williamsburg County, South Carolina, where some of his descendants still reside. Others migrated to other cities and states from that area.

Jajuan Johnson and Vicki McGill on Genealogy and Reparative Visions

Discovering that your ancestor was enslaved by one of the most prominent families in colonial Virginia, a drafter of both the Virginia and United States constitutions and whose signature is on the U.S. Constitution – the document you see on school trips to the National Archives Museum. Finding out that he was an inaugural U.S. Supreme Court Justice gives one pause at realizing your ancestor’s proximity to the founding of this nation. 

It raises questions about what your ancestors witnessed, and the potential of their lives void of enslavement. What if they had the opportunity to participate in the proceedings they possibly observed. How would the lives of their descendants be different if they had the right to read and write, or attend William & Mary? These discoveries also prompt considerations on how our enslaved ancestors built this county and created the generational wealth the descendants of their enslavers still enjoy today. The research illustrates the need for restorative and reparative efforts for descendants whose ancestors built this county and many of the well-funded and endowed universities within this nation. 

The Mellon Foundation funded projects such as “Sharing Authority to Remember and Re-interpret the Past” is one step in facing implications of unjust pasts that can potentially result in tangible forms of redress. In the meantime, we will work diligently in the production of new histories centering the dignity of the oppressed that prefigure possibilities. 

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