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The Lemon Project Blog Posts

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What We Do and Why

By Dr. Sarah Thomas, Lemon Project Associate Director

The Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation has its origins in the work of William & Mary students. Students can make substantive and lasting changes. In 2007, then junior Tiseme Zegeye introduced Student Assembly legislation called The Research Into and an Apology for William and Mary’s Role in Slavery Act.

“The Student Assembly of the College of William and Mary –
(1) Recommends that the Board of Visitors establish a commission to research the full extent of the College of William and Mary’s role in slavery
(2) Recommends that the Board of Visitors express profound regret for William and Mary’s role in slavery
(3) Establish a memorial for the contributions of slaves to the College of William and Mary

Sponsored by Senator Tiseme Zegeye of the Class of 2008

After the Faculty Assembly passed a similar resolution in 2008, the William & Mary Board of Visitors passed the resolution that led to the creation of the Lemon Project: A Journey of Resolution in 2009.

The Lemon Project is not an initiative that is the product of a single person, administrator, or department. Instead, we are a unit within the Office of the Provost, and we have the weight of the Provost and the Board of Visitors behind us and our work.

The Lemon Project is the second institutionally-funded project of its kind in the country.

So what do we do? How do we rectify wrongs against African Americans by William & Mary through both action and inaction?

We listen and collaborate with members of the communities that surround us, especially members of African American communities. We work to build bridges between William & Mary and these communities who for so long have not felt welcome or that they belong at the university. The brick wall that surrounds the old sections of campus separates W&M from our neighbors, including a historically Black neighborhood. The Lemon Project team is working to tear down physical and metaphorical walls.

We research and study the experiences of African and African Americans, including slavery, Jim Crow, and all the way up to the present. We make our findings public through a variety of platforms, including social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn); the website; the Report on the First Eight Years; this blog; the YouTube channel; lectures; conferences; meetings; courses, and signature programs like the annual spring symposium and Lemon’s Legacies Porch Talks.

We are also making history public through Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved. Construction began on Hearth in the summer of 2021 and will finish in May 2022. This is a years-long project and involves the efforts of so many people. From the donors who funded this project to the Lemon Project team researchers who found the names of enslaved people in the archives, we are indebted to those who helped make this project possible.

We’ll write more about the Memorial next week but in the meantime, mark your calendars for the dedication of Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved on May 7 at 2:00 p.m. Join us in the South Wren Yard for this important community-wide event where everyone (yes, everyone!) is welcome. This is one step of many towards reconciliation, repair, and belonging at William & Mary.

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Understanding the Lives of Enslaved People through William & Mary Presidential Letters

By Molly Shilo, 2020-2021 American Studies Graduate Assistant

As part of the Lemon Project’s mission to uncover the university’s role in perpetuating slavery and racial oppression, I have been conducting archival research through Special Collections and Colonial Williamsburg’s Rockefeller Library. Primarily, I have been looking through documents of some of William & Mary’s first presidents to ascertain whether they might have been enslavers and whether those enslaved people may have worked for, or been connected to, the College in any way. This research is crucial for a few different reasons. It could help unravel the College’s reliance upon slavery and relationship with enslaved individuals by illuminating how individuals presiding over the College during its formative years might have implemented policy and structured the College around their racist beliefs. Although the focus initially may be on the presidents themselves, this research will hopefully guide us towards better understanding the lives and experiences of enslaved people working for the College. Finally, this research connects broadly to histories of American institutions that were built upon, and only made possible, by the labor of enslaved people. 

A great example is a letter written from Robert Saunders, Jr. to his wife, Lucy, on May 3, 1863. While Saunders begins with addressing the health of his children, he then turns to discussing the status of his enslaved people. Since the letter is written after the Emancipation Proclamation, he is focused on the individuals who had likely left the plantation. Although he mentions concerns over “Jim” who has run away before and “Molly” who he has not heard from, he confirms that most of the “servants” left behind in Williamsburg are still in their place. 

While Saunders is concerned with the loss of labor and income from the enslaved people he owns and has hired out, this letter provides glimpses into the lives of those enslaved people. We learn that “Jim” has previously escaped but was unfortunately returned to Saunders’ home. There is also a suggestion that he potentially has influenced other enslaved people to attempt to run away. We learn that one of his enslaved men, “Sam,” was “hired at the lunatic asylum,” demonstrating a specific job often not spoken about. Additionally, we hear of “Jacob” who left with his wife, an enslaved woman owned by Mrs. Tucker. Finally, we hear gossip that a neighbor’s slave, Fanny, likely ran off with her husband. These brief mentions provide insights into intimate relations between the enslaved, their decisions about remaining or staying after the Emancipation, and the uncertainty about what exactly was going to happen.

Although this correspondence is after Saunders’ tenure as president of the College, it still demonstrates that he was an enslaver at some point during his life— and likely during his involvement with the College. This letter, and the rest of his correspondence contained in the archives at Swem’s Special Collections, is just one way to unravel his past, his impact on the College, and his beliefs and actions regarding slavery and race. 

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Reflections from the 2020-2021 American Studies Graduate Assistant

By Molly Shilo, 2020-2021 American Studies Graduate Assistant

Let me introduce myself: my name is Molly Shilo, and I was the American Studies Graduate Assistant for the Lemon Project during the 202-2021 academic year. 

When I became the graduate assistant for the Project and learned more about the research they wanted me to take up this semester, I was really excited. Coming from an American Studies background with an undergraduate degree in English and media studies, I had no previous experience doing archival research, but I had read numerous monographs and articles lamenting the violent erasure within the archive, especially when it comes to the period of American slavery. Yet, I couldn’t shake the image I had of being in the archives, sitting at a table, sifting through old, faded papers, and hoping to come across something groundbreaking. 

However, archival research isn’t exactly like that — and definitely not during a pandemic. Instead, I was searching through the Special Collections database, compiling a spreadsheet of different folders and boxes that seemed most relevant, and submitting requests to our archivists to digitize whatever materials they could. Once those scans arrived in my inbox, I then had the (sometimes tedious) task of trying to transcribe illegible scribbles and discern the contents of letters, diaries, account books, and other papers that people had left behind. I think this was the most difficult, and least anticipated, part of this research. It seemed almost impossible at times to decipher someone’s handwriting, no matter how long I may have stared and stared. 

Although this research didn’t necessarily turn out the way I had imagined, that wasn’t a bad thing. Instead, it gave me a newfound appreciation for how complicated, taxing, and difficult this work is. It is one thing to learn about theories of the archive or to read historical monographs that have grown out of this initial stage of research, but there is no better way to recognize its frustrations and joys except for getting in there yourself.

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Rising and Falling Families: Reframing Race and Capitalism in Virginia’s New South

By Derek Vouri-Richard, 2021-2022 American Studies Graduate Assistant

My exhibit, Rising and Falling Families: Reframing Race and Capitalism in Virginia’s New South looks at different Virginia families from the New South to interrogate the relationship between economic changes and racial dynamics in Virginia after the Civil War and Reconstruction period. During this period Southern markets incorporated into a developing national economy through creating new institutions, laws, and business relations. These changes affected families in different ways. Often, the relationship between New South families and the larger social context differed based on race. As Virginia modernized, Black people and organizations entered a growing political economy in which White families had built infrastructures of wealth and power across generations. Around the turn of the century, Black businesses, colleges, and families became the institutions through which Black citizens entered the free market and challenged historical ideologies embedded within the economy.   

Rising and Falling Families analyzes four historical events from Virginia’s New South economy, with a specific eye on the people and families involved in shaping these events. The first section of the exhibit analyzes the formation of the Jamestown Exposition Company in 1902 by men of the Old South aristocracy. The second section looks at the 1907 Jamestown Exposition, which celebrated the 300th anniversary of the English settlement of Jamestown. In the third section, the exhibit considers the rise of a new social class of business owners in the New South by illuminating Samuel Harris of Williamsburg, Va. and Edward L. Stone of Roanoke Va. The exhibit’s final section explores Williamsburg’s twentieth-century Black business district by foregrounding one of the families who were crucial to developing this economic region, the Webb-Williams family.

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What does it mean to construct an archaeological database?  

By Caroline Watson, Anthropology Graduate Assistant, 2019-present

Database is a bodiless concept, recognizable to many but whose boundaries are difficult to define. Most broadly, our minds and memories are databases that constantly update, however imperfectly, as we see, read, and experience new things. In the scholarly sense, databases are paper or digital places that store key details of a person, object, location, or event. Both of these definitions underscore that databases are sources of information and a central home to multiple types of data that derive from other, diverse sources. Recognizing the form and function of databases is indeed a first step in learning how to think about them critically.  

Caroline Watson and the in-progress database

One labor of love The Lemon Project is currently undertaking is the construction of an archaeological database, which I am helping to design as part of my graduate research fellowship. This database will host information relating to the findings from archaeological excavations that have taken place on William & Mary’s campus since the 1930s. In other words, it will be a lengthy and descriptive list of artifacts that have been found on campus. Unfortunately, it is next to impossible to populate this database with every individual artifact that has been unearthed over the past almost century. Norms and regulations surrounding both artifact documentation and preservation of excavation forms have changed over the decades, thankfully now holding archaeologists more accountable for their work. To this end, the task of tracking down the artifact inventories that are dispersed throughout different archaeological companies and organizations has been a challenge in itself and is still ongoing. William & Mary itself houses archaeological and documentary collections that are independent from collections that reside in specific departments, making it all the more complicated to round up and access these data. Once I obtain artifact inventories from archaeological reports, I face the difficulty of standardizing this information into our own database-specific categories. This requires the creation of a standardized system of codes and categories that I will apply to all artifact entries. It is important to recognize the role personal judgment plays here. These codes and categories directly determine the type of information we are extracting from each artifact, and thus the extent of future knowledge about that object. If I decided to label every pottery sherd (not shard!) as simply ceramic, I would miss the crucial distinctions between styles like stoneware, pearlware, and Chinese porcelain, which each have their own temporal and geographic implications. Alternatively, recording every possible detail of an artifact may paralyze the progress of database construction and result in a mass of data that is not necessarily useful to anyone. Navigating this fine line is my current job as someone designing the database. My approach has been to think critically about what details of artifacts are most relevant and can answer the widest variety of research questions, now and in the future. Certainly, The Lemon Project intends for this database to not only spotlight that William & Mary has its own archaeological collections, but also engage future archaeological research projects that highlight the presence of enslaved peoples on campus and focus on the materiality of enslaved life ways and experiences.

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Meet Derek Vouri-Richard, LP American Studies Graduate Assistant

By Derek Vouri-Richard, 2021-2022 American Studies Graduate Assistant

I am a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at William & Mary. My areas of specialization are media studies, visual culture studies, cultural studies, film studies, the history of American capitalism, and the history of American media. My research looks at the ways in which American businesses were developing new forms of literacy and visual learning in the first half of the twentieth century. My research and areas of specialization relate to the Lemon Project in that I am interested in the ways in which developing market relations intersect with cultural dynamics such as race and gender. My role in the Lemon Project involves researching with documents that reveal enslaved people who were associated with the college from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth century. These documents come from sources connected to William & Mary and sources outside the college. William & Mary documents that have helped the Lemon Project better understand the ways in which slavery has shaped the college’s history include bursar account records, faculty minutes books, former president’s account books, and ephemeral material such as a list of slaves owned by the college from the eighteenth century. Sources outside of William & Mary that have contributed to the Lemon Project research include the Bruton Parish Church, the Virginia Gazette, the William and Mary Quarterly, and the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. Through accumulating these sources the Lemon Project hopes to build a comprehensive database that will facilitate ongoing knowledge about the history of race and slavery at William & Mary and in Williamsburg.

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Join us for the 12th Annual Lemon Project Spring Symposium- The Time is Now: The Lives of Black Men Past, Present, and Future

By Dr. Sarah Thomas, Lemon Project Associate Director

A Twitter Graphic Shared with Our Call for Proposals

The Lemon Project team is busy preparing for our upcoming Symposium—it’s less than two weeks away! This will be an in-person and virtual event and our first in-person event during the COVID era. We are looking forward to coming together around the theme, “The Time is Now: The Lives of Black Men Past, Present, and Future.” Registration is free, and we will be providing breakfast and lunch on March 25 and March 26.

Why are we focusing on the lives of Black men?

The following is excerpted from the Call for Proposals, written by Dr. Jajuan Johnson, our Mellon Postdoctoral Research Associate. “The lives of Black men are valuable. The purpose of this symposium is to center the realities of Black men past and present while imagining future possibilities. In the words of Black Male Studies scholar T. Hasan Johnson, we plan to “delve into the lives of Black males beyond stereotypes, conjecture, and opinion.” 

“The symposium prompts us to pause and listen to the stories of Black men across time, age, class, region, and sexuality. Given the historical marginalization of Black males and the evident atrocities over the past decade with the violent deaths of Black men and boys, there is an urgency to lean into the humanity of Black men and imagine a future where they (we) can thrive in all realms of life.”

Dr. Jajuan Johnson, Call for Proposals, 12th Annual Lemon Project Spring Symposium

Keynotes by Tommy Curry & Kiese Laymon

Dr. Tommy Curry and Kiese Laymon are joining us in Williamsburg for keynote talks—Dr. Curry on March 25 at 6 pm ET and Mr. Laymon on March 26 at 9:00 am ET. After each of their keynotes, Dr. Curry and Mr. Laymon will be signing books, which you can purchase from the William & Mary Bookstore on site.

Plenary Session—The Time is Now: The Lives of Black Men

Dr. Daniel Black, Dr. T. Hasan Johnson, and Dr. O’Shan Gadsden will serve as panelists for the plenary session, “The Time is Now: The Lives of Black Men Past, Present, and Future,” on the morning of Friday, March 25. Dr. Jamel Donnor, of the William & Mary School of Education, will be the moderator. Dr. Jajuan Johnson notes that “the panelists bring various perspectives with backgrounds in Black Male Studies, psychology, and Africana Studies. They will present facts challenging enduring stereotypes that dehumanize Black men and boys, offer insight on present inequities, and discuss ways Black men are transforming themselves and their communities. Lastly, they will provide visions that improve the lives of Black males based on their areas of expertise.”

One of 2021’s Symposium panels, featuring students who made art to remember people enslaved by William & Mary

Future of Ethnic Studies

On March 25 at noon, the Asian Centennial and the Lemon Project join together for a panel discussion on Ethnic Studies in Virginia. During this year of celebrating the accomplishments of the first Asian students at William & Mary, we also look forward to a more inclusive future. Our panelists are Monika Gosin, Krystyn Moon (from the University of Mary Washington), Laura Guerrero, Steve Prince, and Chinua Thelwell.

Interdisciplinary and Multi-disciplinary Panels

In addition to the keynotes, plenary session, and the Ethnic Studies panel, there are 11 panels on a variety of topics given by presenters who are community members, scholars, researchers, genealogists, working professionals, and students. From folks sharing their genealogy and family histories to students sharing their summer research and discussions of Black professionals in the corporate world to cell phone videos and police violence, these panels are real, timely, and offer a roadmap of where Black males have been, where they are now, and what the future could hold.

Everyone is welcome! Registration is free, and we’re providing breakfast and lunch for in-person attendees on March 25 and March 26.

As always, everyone is welcome to attend. Please share the Symposium with your friends, family, and anyone else who might be interested in this two-day multi-disciplinary conversation about Black men past, present, and future.

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Get to know the Lemon Project Anthropology Graduate Assistant

By Caroline Watson, Anthropology Graduate Assistant, 2019-present

Receiving the Lemon Project research fellowship in Fall 2019 was one of the reasons I was most excited to attend William & Mary as an incoming master’s student in archaeology. At that time, I couldn’t have predicted that I’d be continuing with the Lemon Project team 3 years later as a doctorate student! Although my Ph.D. research is focused on pre-contact chiefdoms in French Polynesia (think 14th to 18th century), I was equally eager to dive into a project that highlighted the archaeology of the more recent past, especially that of the university and community into which I was entering. Since my very first day working with the Lemon Project team, I have never thought of my work as simply fulfilling the requirements for my fellowship. Rather, I am deeply engaged in and committed to the Lemon Project’s goals of broadening our knowledge of William & Mary’s history with slavery as well as using this research to build a safer, more inclusive community within the university and beyond. 

As an archaeologist, I am tasked with the attempt to understand William & Mary’s history of slavery through a material lens. While archaeologists certainly utilize the archival record, what sets us apart from other disciplines is our attention to the materiality of history—the objects, architecture, and even soil stains that people leave behind. A place like William & Mary has never really been abandoned. For one, indigenous peoples resided in this space long before the College’s formation in 1693, and even the brief hiatus in an academic administrative presence during the Civil War still saw an active occupation of the campus landscape (Higgins III 2014: 15). Nevertheless, while many buildings remain grounded in the same location, the areas in between them have been constantly renovated and re-designed over the years, through renovation and landscaping projects. The Sunken Gardens, for instance, were not constructed until 1935, which raises questions about what occupied that area before all that earth was moved. All of this makes it pretty difficult to get a direct “snapshot” of what campus looked like during the years it was engaged in the practice of slavery, since we have to peel back several layers of these physical changes. 

Documentation of archaeological work performed on campus since the 1930s helps us get closer to the material and architectural history of 18th and 19th century William & Mary, in the hopes of gaining a fuller understanding of the context in which enslaved peoples worked and lived here. Thus, my principal work as the Lemon Project Anthropology Graduate Fellow is to work directly with these documents and build a database that stores their information and makes this material history accessible to all. Stay tuned for more detail about this database! 

Sources Cited:
Higgins III, T.F. (2014). The Civil War at William and Mary: Archaeological Data Recovery in the Brafferton and Wren Yards, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA. William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research. WMCAR Project No. 12-19.

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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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