Over the past two decades, a number of schools – including Harvard, Brown, Emory, and the University of North Carolina – have begun investigations into their own histories with slavery. These have often yielded troubling, though unsurprising, revelations, usually exposing how universities not only profited from slave labor, but heavily relied on slaves to stay functional.
Some schools disseminate their findings in the form of a report, and leave it at that. Others establish temporary institutions within the university, allocating resources for specific projects in order to produce a multifaceted, comprehensive analysis of their involvement with slavery. These institutions may sponsor events, such as town halls, conferences, or exhibits aimed at accessibly presenting this information for a campus-wide audience.
While these reports and institutions uncover invaluable insights of the lives of the enslaved, to many in university communities, they are insufficient. As funding dries up and programming dies down, these conversations regarding race, slavery, and legacy fade into the cacophony of the average college campus. They are reduced to shelf space within university archive, and of course, a ticked box on a university administrator's "Diversity" checklist. Student life hums along, unperturbed. Maybe a building or two is renamed, but frankly, it is difficult to imagine any meaningful progress emerging from such a fleeting exercise.
This may be a cynical picture of the typical university's well-intentioned attempt at illuminating incredibly complex issues. Standard protocol attempts to grapple with these questions in a symbolic context, redressing through abstract means, such as education, dialogue, and memorials. However, one school has broken this mold and committed to a bold, unprecedented course of action.
On Sept. 1, Georgetown University announced it would begin offering preferential admission status to the descendants of its former slaves, essentially treating these applicants as traditional legacies. This decision represents the most significant policy measure enacted by an American college or university in confronting its past participation in slavery. It comes in addition to the usual assemblage of commitments – events, reports, and the renaming of buildings. Whether other universities will follow still remains to be seen, but they must be taking notice.
With the establishment of the Lemon Project in 2009, the College of William and Mary officially began an internal inquiry into its own legacy of slavery and the subsequent racism of Jim Crow. Comprised of professors, administrators, staff members, students, and community members, the Lemon Project is a vibrant community, providing a great forum for dissecting these histories. As a former Lemon Project volunteer, I have seen firsthand the incredible enrichment provided by the institution. It differs from equivalent spaces at other universities, in that it is not restricted to studying slavery alone, rather, it incorporates all sorts of racial struggles at the college into one ongoing narrative. The legacies of slavery and racism are not treated as static relics to be retroactively observed. Instead, the Lemon Project challenges us to engage these concepts and analyze how they still permeate our communities today.
And yet despite having such a wonderfully robust program, I still worry that the Lemon Project alone is inadequate in holistically addressing our past injustices. There is incredible value in its work -- and in no way do I wish to understate that – but until we transcend our complacency with symbolic means to examine our past, we will always stay uncomfortably removed from the injustices propagated by the college.
I urge William and Mary to consider a similar course of action to that of Georgetown.
The arguments are simple, capturing the horrors of racial hatred and the college's role in their perpetuation. Slavery, followed by an additional century of legalized racism in the form of Jim Crow laws, left indelible marks onto both Williamsburg and the college communities. It would be asinine to suggest that over 300 years of state-sanctioned degradation do not continue to adversely resonate today. People of color were stripped of wealth, social capital, and basic humanity, and as a significant beneficiary of such exploitation, we have an obligation to afford material retribution to any affected groups.
Our initiative may have to look a little different from Georgetown's, given our relatively scant record of College-owned slaves – perhaps our preferential admissions status can apply to the descendants of Williamsburg slaves. Another interesting possibility would be to provide scholarships to the descendants of the region's slaves – though, this may be difficult as it would likely create a precedent for reparations (a divisive, yet necessary conversation that merits its own piece). Both of these possibilities are further complicated by our status as a state university, so any such measures would likely have to be passed through extra bureaucracy.
Still, we should not be dissuaded from seriously pursuing action that is grounded on material, instead of (and exclusively) symbolic amends. I am certain that many campus and community members would value some sort of open forum devoted to discussing how we can appropriately move toward fulfilling these goals.
William and Mary has consistently found itself on the wrong end of history over the last 300 years, but we are now presented with an opportunity to take a definitive stance on an issue of the utmost importance. As Georgetown has demonstrated, concrete action is both viable and imperative. Will the college assume the role of trailblazer, firmly on the side of justice? Or will it remain comfortably complicit with the status quo?
Arvin Alaigh is a 2015 graduate of the College of William and Mary. He served as a 2015-16 Service-Year Fellow with the William and Mary Office of Community Engagement, and is attending graduate school to study intellectual history.