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The First Annual Descendant’s Day at Highland

Guest Post by Jennifer Stacy, Highland Council of Descendant Advisors, and Maria DiBenigno, Highland Postdoctoral Research Fellow

William & Mary’s Highland is a 535-acre historic site located in Charlottesville, Virginia and operated by the university. It is notable as the former plantation of the fifth U.S. President and W&M alumnus, James Monroe, as well as 53 women, men, and children who were enslaved by him. We know the names of some of these individuals; others we still seek to know.

IIC Students, Credit Grace Helmick

Highland conducts ongoing research about its extant buildings and natural resources as well as ongoing community engagement. In 2016, Highland announced its discovery that Monroe’s house has been completely destroyed by fire, and the standing building was a separate Guesthouse built in 1818. This major site re-interpretation allowed us to have conversations about what historic sites get wrong and how we work to tell more truthful stories about the past. This discovery also helped connect Highland’s staff with members of the local descendant community whose ancestors were enslaved at Highland. In 2018, ten of these individuals formed the Highland Council of Descendant Advisors. The Council advises Highland staff on exhibit content, program planning, and community engagement through the concept of shared authority. Members present at regional conferences, including the Lemon Project’s Symposium, work with regional school systems, and interact with W&M students on a variety of topics, including food histories and on-campus concerns.

Ada’s Kitchen on Wheels, Credit Grace Helmick

On Saturday, June 11, the Council hosted their first Descendants Day at Highland. It was an event long in the making. Attendees enjoyed a delicious lunch buffet from Ada’s Kitchen on Wheels, a local food truck owned by Highland descendant, Gloria Saylor, and named for her mother and Council member, Ada Monroe Saylor. The Council welcomed descendant groups and community members from all parts of Virginia, including our W&M partners at the Institute for Integrative Conservation, the Bray School Initiative, the Lemon Project, and Special Collections. Friends from the Historic Brattonsville Descendants Group traveled from their homes in Rock Hill, South Carolina to attend — the Council was so honored by their presence!

Locally, the Council welcomed the Descendants of Enslaved Communities at the University of Virginia, the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, the Descendants of the Pen Park plantations, and the B.F. Yancey School Community Center. The event included many regional collaborators, including the White House Historical Association, Virginia Humanities, the Ivy Creek Foundation, plus colleagues from the Louisa County Historical Society and the Fluvanna County Historical Society. Perhaps most importantly, the Council met two previously unknown individuals who descend from Highland’s enslaved families.
An important source of information for Highland’s Florida descendants is Take Them In Families, an ongoing research project centered on the families sold by James Monroe to Florida in 1828.

It was a full afternoon of fellowship, food, conversation, and remembrance that closed with a Calling of Names.

The next Descendants Day is already scheduled for Saturday, June 10, 2023.

To learn more about the Descendant Council’s work as well as Highland’s ongoing reinterpretation, visit https://highland.org/.

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Donning of the Kente 2022

By Dr. Sarah Thomas, Associate Director, The Lemon Project

On May 20, 2022, the Lemon Project and the Hulon Willis Association hosted the Donning of the Kente ceremony during the Class of 2022 Commencement weekend. William & Mary’s Donning of the Kente ceremony began in 2012 as a rites of passage graduation celebration open to all graduating students. We are thankful and excited to celebrate the excellence, both personal and academic, of students of color. All graduating students are welcome to participate in this ceremony.

Many students have remarked that one of the aspects of the DOK that made it very special was the opportunity to choose their donner. The donning itself gives students the chance to not only celebrate their accomplishments, but also to recognize someone special in their lives. Students have chosen parents, siblings, friends, faculty, administrators, high school principals, and others to serve as their donners.

We want our graduates (undergraduates, graduate, and professional) to know that their relationship with the university does not end at graduation. A new chapter begins when you become an alumnus and we encourage you all to join the Hulon Willis Alumni Association. The Donning of the Kente Ceremony is the first step in this relationship.

Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved played an important role in this year’s ceremony. The Class of 2022 was the first class that began its procession to the DOK at Hearth. The graduates also gathered at Hearth for a group photo.

For those who will be graduating William & Mary in 2023, registration is now open! Check out the details and register now to receive a stole and participate in the 2023 DOK today.

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Summer Sankofa Series continues with Nicka Sewell-Smith in June

The Lemon Project team is excited that genealogist Nicka Sewell-Smith is joining us virtually on June 9, 2022, for “The Trifecta: The Secret Sauce of Researching the Formerly Enslaved.” Thank you to Dr. Jajuan Johnson, who leads the Lemon Project Geneaology Initiative. We’re glad that we can build on the 2021 Summer Sankofa Series Workshops and offer new topics in 2022.

Register now for this virtual workshop on June 9 at 6 pm ET.

Below is the workshop description that she shared with us:

“Genealogists and family historians alike have spent decades looking for a tried and true method for unearthing slaveholders of those enslaved prior to 1865. Learn how three crucial record sets (Civil War Pensions, the Freedmen’s Bureau, and Probates/Successions) can become just the wrecking ball needed to obliterate brick walls related to slavery.”

We invite you to complete our genealogy research inquiry form and let us know if you have (or think you have) enslaved ancestral ties to William & Mary.

Interested in learning more about Ms. Sewell-Smith? Below is the biography from her website. Her website has a lot of useful information, including how to book a genealogy coaching session with her, how to connect with her Patreon community, and where and when she’ll be speaking.

Image courtesy of Nicka Sewell Smith

“Nicka Smith is a professional photographer, speaker, host, consultant, and documentarian with more than 20 years of experience as a genealogist. She has extensive experience in African ancestored genealogy, reverse genealogy, and is expert in genealogical research in the Northeastern Louisiana area, and researching enslaved communities.

Nicka has diverse and varied experience in media with a background in audio, video, and written communications. She’s appeared on TODAY Show, CNN, MSNBC, on the series Who Do You Think You Are and has been interviewed by Oakland Tribune, The Undefeated, National Geographic, and TIME. She is the host of BlackProGen LIVE, an innovative web show with more than 125 episodes focused on people of color genealogy and family history.

She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, a member of two lineage societies (Sons and Daughters of the Middle Passage (SDUSMP), National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and a past board member of the California Genealogical Society (CGS) and the African American Genealogical Society of Northern California (AAGSNC). Nicka served as the chair of the Outreach and Education Committee for AAGSNC, and is the former project manager for the Alameda County, CA Youth Ancestral Project where more than 325 youth were taught the value of family history.

Additionally, Nicka is the family historian and lead researcher for the Atlas family of Lake Providence, East Carroll, Louisiana and guides and coaches an active group of family historians at the Who is Nicka Smith Patreon community.

In 2009, Nicka launched ns2 photography following years spent as a happenstance photographer for the publications she worked on in high school and college.  She utilizes a journalistic style while capturing high school seniors and weddings.  Nicka’s work has been featured on The Africa Channel, Scrubs Magazine, The Bride’s Cafe, and The Oakland Post.”

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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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The Colonial Gaze on William & Mary’s Archaeological Collections

By Caroline Watson, Lemon Project Anthropology Graduate Assistant

A common expression in archaeological communities is that theoretical interpretation happens “at the trowel’s edge”[1]. While this expression falls trite on my ears, what it implies is actually quite important for archaeologists, and those conducting research more broadly, to remember. There is no “neutral” moment in archaeological interpretation. Research questions are defined by specific and sometimes exclusive interests. Decisions regarding excavation locations tend to be controlled by the entity funding the work. Materials that come out of the ground are immediately observed and later classified according to object type and perceived function. Finally, where and how archaeological collections are stored also depends on the result of this interpretative process.

In some ways, this process is not purposefully harmful. I’d like to believe most archaeologists do their best to work with reference collections and available published literature to make sure they’re classifying their findings in the most appropriate ways. Nevertheless, artifact classification, especially when approached uncritically, becomes harmful through exclusionary acts. In the case of William & Mary’s archaeological collections, we know a lot about what types of artifacts were used on Historic Campus over the years, but we lack a critical inquiry about who these objects are associated with.

My ongoing documentary analysis of the records and reports relating to archaeology at William & Mary reveals that most archaeological work done on campus has not been guided by the interest to know more about William & Mary’s history with slavery[2]. When archaeological projects at their very core are not designed to question or consider the African and/or African American presence on campus, then how will we ever be able to associate excavated materials with this identity? Archaeologists who assume a “neutral” identity for artifacts until proven otherwise end up, in one way or another, upholding the narrative of campus as an historically and predominately white, elite space. Neutrality is rarely possible. All objects are found within a geographical and sociocultural context. Thus, in a setting like William & Mary, when archaeological findings are taken “as is”, their neutral identity by default is white and colonial. In turn, the artifacts that get flagged as potentially embodying an African or African American identity on campus are the ones we view as being most obviously not white. The marble that was incised with an “X” design found in the north Wren yard has been interpreted as a potential gaming piece used by enslaved people. A cowrie shell, found nearby and within the same stratigraphic level (so, similar time period), may have been a piece of adornment or a medium of exchange for an enslaved person[3]. We value these artifacts for the window, however so small, they provide into the material lives of enslaved people on campus. Yet, what about the tobacco clay pipes, clothing materials, and countless cooking and drinking vessels that have been found on campus in similar locations? We fail to link these materials to non-white identities, which further relegates African Americans on Historic Campus to the “unique” objects and thus margins of William & Mary’s material history. Without a critical examination of our own classification norms, there will never be a broader space for African Americans in William & Mary’s archaeological collections.

I propose we think of William & Mary’s campus and the materials that lie both above and underneath its surface, as an archive. This archive is not a neutral or passive place, but a carefully picked model and the result of several layers of power-laden decisions. Archaeologists working on campus and with campus artifacts hold one form of this power and thus face the certain decision to either uphold campus as a colonial archive or work to expose it. There is much work to be done to get at a more holistic understanding of the material lives of enslaved people at William & Mary. This may require more digging, or maybe it simply requires us to establish a new relationship with the collections we already have. Regardless, perhaps the question we can all start with is, “who are we doing this work for?”.

Image: Screenshot from Higgins III & Underwood 2001: 72, showing incised marble and cowrie shell.

Image: Screenshot from Higgins III & Underwood 2001: 72, showing incised marble and cowrie shell.


[1] Higgins III, T.F. & J.R. Underwood (2001). Secrets of the Historic Campus: Archaeological Investigations in the Wren Yard at the College of William and Mary, 1999-2000. WMCAR Project No. 99-26. William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research. This is a really extensive report—I suggest checking it out!

[2] This idea was born out of a broader paradigm shift in archaeological theory that sought a more critical examination of the archeologists’ positionality, authority, and role in knowledge verification. If you’re curious about where this all started, see Hodder, Ian (1997) Always momentary, fluid and flexible: towards a reflexive excavation methodology. Antiquity 71: 691-700.

[3] There has been one archaeological excavation that specifically designed its research questions to address the history of slavery on campus. See Monroe, E.J. & D.W. Lewes (2016). Archaeological Assessment of a Site near the Alumni House and the Early College Boundary, College of William and Mary, City of Williamsburg, Virginia. WMCAR Project No. 15-07. William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research.

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Looking Back While Moving Forward: The Bricks of Hearth

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

The dedication of Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved is on Saturday, May 7, at 2 p.m. We are excited about this monumental occasion and look forward to introducing Hearth to you all.

Thanks to the efforts of the Lemon Project Committee on Memorialization (LPCOM), led by Dr. Jody Allen, the Memorial Building Committee, co-chaired by Dr. Chon Glover, many William & Mary staff, faculty, and students, the architectural firm Baskervill, and the construction company Kjellstrom & Lee, and many, many others, Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved is nearing completion.

Hearth rendering, courtesy of Baskervill

The bricks of Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved, and the bricks near Hearth tell stories about William & Mary’s past, present, and future.

As you approach Hearth, you’ll notice the darker granite bricks. Many of those granite blocks have names and dates on them. These are the names of enslaved people who were owned or rented by William & Mary or owned by people (Presidents, Board of Visitors members, Faculty, Staff, Students) during their time at the university. Many granite blocks are also engraved with the word “Unknown” and a date; some are engraved with “Unknown,” an occupation, and a date. In those cases, we had glimpses of enslaved people in archival records, but those keeping the records did not include their names. Some granite blocks have no names, known or unknown, or dates. When the Lemon Project team finds more enslaved people associated with William & Mary in the records (and we will!), their names will be engraved on those granite blocks.

The vaulted, brick drain (Photo by Stephen Salpukas/William & Mary)

You will also notice a small section of six bricks near the Hearth’s base. In contrast with the darker section of interior bricks near Hearth’s center, these bricks are framed and look old. They are! These are historic bricks, found by a team led by Dr. Susan Kern, then Executive Director of Historic Campus, in the summer of 2019. During a project to widen the brick pathway to the Wren Building, workers discovered an early 18th-century drain. The drain’s access point was unknown prior to June 12, 2019. Archaeologists Nick Luccketti ’71, Andy Edwards ’71, and William & Mary Center for Archaeological Research staff uncovered this drain and were able to view its interior. Enslaved people constructed this vaulted drain, accomplishing brickwork that required both skills and knowledge. Enslaved people also made the bricks. It is only fitting that historic bricks from this early 18th-century drain are forever part of Hearth. We can get a glimpse into the lives and labor of enslaved people in early 18th-century William & Mary through the drain bricks.

Interview with Dr. Susan Kern on the Wren Drain

Having the Memorial within or directly engaging with Historic Campus is crucial. As you will see, the Memorial and the Wren Building are in conversation with each other. Enslaved people made the bricks that became the Wren Building, and enslaved people built (and rebuilt) the Wren Building. Enslaved people also lived in the Wren building, as did faculty, staff, and the President (until the President’s House in 1732). From fires and rebuilding to graffiti and repair, the bricks tell many stories about the Wren Building’s history, and enslaved people are a large part of that history.

Lastly, you have probably noticed that a brick wall surrounds much of the oldest part of campus. This wall was constructed in the 1920s and 1930s during the height of the Jim Crow era. Many African Americans who live in Williamsburg and the surrounding areas view this wall as a barrier between them and William & Mary. The Lemon Project team works to tear down physical walls (like this one) and walls in people’s minds while we build bridges between William & Mary and African American communities. Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved interrupts this brick wall, and during the groundbreaking, President Rowe, President Emeritus Reveley, and Robert Francis Engs Director of the Lemon Project Jody Allen tore down a section of the 1930s brick wall. This broken-through wall represents the Lemon Project’s work to build bridges and repair relationships through reconciliation and healing.

Tearing Down Walls

We can arrive at a more complete history of William & Mary. One way to do this is to explore the bricks in and around Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved. Join us as we use these bricks to tell stories about people of the university’s past, present, and future.

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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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