Summer 2015 Issue

Putting Flesh on the Bones

The Lemon Project confronts the College's most difficult history

By Sara Piccini

Williamsburg, June 1809. In the last light of day, a man named Lemon kneels in his garden, his weathered hands searching the dirt for potatoes to fill his basket. His back aches from a long day’s toil — the College has rented him out to Mr. Brown to dig a new well. Lemon muses on what the Bursar will purchase with the rental fees.

Photo courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Perhaps some new textbooks for the grammar school boys, the same boys who taunt him with the name he despises: “Hey, Lemon! Why’re you so sour?”


Lemon lifts his basket of potatoes to bring inside. Tomorrow he will sell the crop to the College, taking claim to the fruits of his own labor — a tiny fraction, but a portion nonetheless. Then he will return to Mr. Brown’s for another day of digging.

Walking slowly through his carefully tended plot, Lemon savors the smell of honeysuckle in the air. For a few precious moments, as the night closes in, he feels like a free man.

The enslaved man called Lemon left behind just a few scraps in the College of William & Mary’s vast paper trail. His name appears on an inventory of slaves owned by the College, indicating that he was hired out. He was allowed to raise crops on his own time, and sold the produce to his masters. In 1808, he received a Christmas bonus. When he became ill in 1816, the College purchased his medicine; the following year, it purchased his coffin. Whether he had a wife and children he loved, whether he indeed hated his name — those details can only be imagined.

“We cannot know the full dimensions of Lemon’s life, but he clearly was more than a cipher who merely provided labor for his institutional master,” wrote the late historian Robert Engs.

“Oftentimes people think of slaves in the abstract, as numbers,” said Hope Wright ’97, an actor and interpreter of African-American life for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “Enslaved men and women found a way to have their voice. Hope is what made them survive.”

Lemon’s relationship with the College as both enslaved man and entrepreneur stands as a symbol of William & Mary’s complex history with the African-American community — a history that began with the first laying of bricks for the Wren Building. “The dominant themes of William & Mary’s racial past were inescapably slavery, secession, segregation,” said W&M President Taylor Reveley. “While these are not our themes today, they nonetheless have a lingering impact on our time.”

In April 2009, William & Mary’s Board of Visitors adopted a resolution acknowledging that the College had “owned and exploited slave labor from its founding to the Civil War” and that it had “failed to take a stand against segregation during the Jim Crow Era.” The resolution called for the creation of the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation, named in Lemon’s honor:

[It] will be a long-term research project under the sponsorship of the Office of the Provost, involving College faculty, staff and students as well as members of the Greater Williamsburg community, to better understand, chronicle, and preserve the history of blacks at the College and in the community and to promote a deeper understanding of the indebtedness of the College to the work and support of its diverse neighbors.

Since its establishment, the Lemon Project — currently co-chaired by Visiting Assistant Professor of History Jody Allen Ph.D. ’07 and Associate Professor of Dance and Africana Studies Leah Glenn — has worked to put “flesh on the bones in the College’s journey of remembrance and repentance,” as Reveley said at the fifth annual Lemon Project Symposium in April.

“What we did early on was look at the Board of Visitors resolution and make that into a working document,” said Allen, the project’s managing director. As she explained, the project has three primary goals: conducting historical research, building bridges to the community, and engaging current students through such innovations as “porch talks” — encouraging open discussion with faculty and staff. Allen emphasizes to students that undergraduate action, through a 2007 Student Assembly resolution, served as the initial catalyst for the project.

“One of the most important things to come out of the Lemon Project is a balanced history of William & Mary,” said Terry Meyers, Chancellor Professor of English and a member of the project’s steering committee.

Meyers has made vital research contributions to the project, including uncovering the history of the Bray School, a school affiliated with the College from 1760 for the religious instruction of enslaved and free black children, to which the College sent two children it owned, Adam and Fanny.
“We have a glorious history, there’s no question, but we have dark eras,” Meyers said. “There’s a kind of grittiness to our history that people need to accept.”

Photo by David M. Doody, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

The vast majority of us whose ancestors never owned slaves and came here after slavery was abolished are sick of hearing how we have to make it up to them. — Online comment in the Atlantic magazine, February 2015.


This comment appeared in response to an Atlantic article, “How to Acknowledge a Shameful Past,” which discussed the effort by universities, including William & Mary, to confront their complicated histories. It reflects a commonly held sentiment, often expressed far less politely: Why revisit the sins of the past?

Institutions and governments worldwide have long grappled with the question of how to acknowledge and redress historical injustices, leading to initiatives such as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In the United States, universities have been in the vanguard, beginning with Brown University in 2003. As Brown’s report noted: “Universities are dedicated to the discovery and dissemination of knowledge. If an institution professing these principles cannot squarely face its own history, it is hard to imagine how any other institution, let alone our nation, might do so.”

“It’s important for all members of society to acknowledge and understand our collective past, and how the past connects to the present,” said historian Kelley Fanto Deetz ’02, who is spearheading research for the University of Virginia’s President’s Commission on Slavery, established in 2013. “This isn’t just an African-American narrative, it’s an American narrative.”

“A lot of the more unpleasant history didn’t happen that long ago — in our lifetimes,” said Hope Wright. “We need to get to the truth, to the heart of it. We don’t ever want to hurt people’s feelings, but if you keep brushing things under the carpet, I think they do fester.”

At William & Mary, efforts to begin an initiative similar to Brown’s gained momentum in 2007-08, with both the student and faculty assemblies passing resolutions requesting the College to begin investigating its role in slavery and segregation. Former provost Geoffrey Feiss then invited Robert Engs, a University of Pennsylvania history professor, to spend a semester on campus conducting fact-finding and historical research.

“Geoff wanted a scholar of national standing to come in as a consultant, spirit and guide,” said Terry Meyers. “Bob’s report was the spark of the Lemon Project.” It was Engs who first brought Lemon to light and recommended that the initiative be named for him. (Sadly, Professor Engs — one of the first black students at Princeton and a classmate of both Feiss and Reveley — passed away in 2013.)

“W&M is only the second university after Brown to do this on an institutional basis,” said Meyers. “The thing that distinguishes the Lemon Project is the degree of institutional support.”

“I couldn’t be more proud of my alma mater, that they were strong enough and brave enough to start this,” Deetz said.

On the Wednesday before Commencement, the Wren Building is largely empty. A lone visitor’s footsteps echo in the hallway. It is in this building — what constituted the entire College in its early years — where the process begins of filling the rooms with long-forgotten black faces.

“The college owned slaves in a number of different capacities, and a lot of those had to do with the work that went on here — the cooking, the baking, the laundry,” said Professor Susan Kern Ph.D. ’07, executive director of the Historic Campus.

While much of the history of slavery at William & Mary must be extrapolated through the broader historical record, Kern and her faculty colleagues have used such archival sources as bursar’s accounts and faculty minutes to glean specific pieces of evidence.

“In one year, for example, there’s a reference in the College rules that the boys may have the College-owned slaves set their fires and shine their shoes once a day, but they can’t use them to do errands,” Kern said. “Part of this is understanding that in a slave society, it’s as if every slave is enslaved to everyone who is a master. So that makes a much more complicated landscape here than students just coming and going from classes.” Kern notes that the archival records have turned up evidence of physical abuse of slaves by students, something that Deetz has discovered at U.Va. as well.

From 1718 to 1802, William & Mary also owned slaves who worked at the College’s property in Southside Virginia, a plantation called the Nottoway Quarter — the subject of ongoing research by Jody Allen. The proceeds from the plantation’s tobacco went to finance scholarships for “poor but worthy” white male students.

The project’s findings are leading to a much more comprehensive and nuanced history of the College, full of contradictions. In 1796, for example, law professor St. George Tucker 1772, LL.D. 1790 published a pamphlet endorsing gradual emancipation, later appended to his edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries; three decades later, President Thomas Roderick Dew 1820, M.A. 1824 produced one of the leading works in the antebellum era defending slavery as a positive good. “A merrier being does not exist on the face of the globe, than the negro slave of the United States,” Dew wrote.

The Lemon Project has built on the work of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, a pioneer in historical research and interpretation of African-American life in the colonial period. Hope Wright, who began her involvement with CW as a child actor 31 years ago, spoke at the 2015 Lemon Project Symposium about the process of creating fully realized characters based on historical evidence.

Wright’s primary character is Eve, an enslaved woman owned by W&M alumnus Peyton Randolph and inherited by his wife, Elizabeth, after his death in 1775. “There are six mentions of Eve in primary documents,” Wright said. “We know that she’s valued at 100 pounds sterling. There are baptismal records at Bruton Parish for her son George in 1766.

“When I’m talking to student groups, I’ll usually mention that Eve had a son about their same age,” Wright said. “Some students ask, ‘Will he become a slave too?’ When I explain it was decided before he was born, that makes it very personal for them.”

Photo by Brian Palmer

Wright notes that Eve’s name appears in a Virginia Gazette advertisement in February 1782, providing evidence that she had run away months earlier seeking freedom with the British forces. “These ads are specific and descriptive, so I know what she looked like, what kind of clothes she wore,” she said.


“There’s a change that happens when you put on those clothes,” Wright explained. “It’s a very distinct difference — you just feel it. I think about all the things that I’m fortunate to have today, a home and a husband who lives under the same roof. You put yourself in a position of being thankful that you don’t have to go back.”

With the broad reach of the Lemon Project, William & Mary has committed itself to looking beyond slavery to its long aftermath — in particular, the practice of Jim Crow segregation and the exclusion of African-Americans from educational and occupational advancement.

In his 2008 report to the provost, “The College, Race and Slavery,” Robert Engs wrote: “I have been startled by the deeply rooted anger and distrust of the College that exists among longtime residents of the black community.” This open acknowledgment has guided the Lemon Project in its mission to build bridges between the College and the community.

“We’re hoping that as people in the community hear about the project, the discomfort can be lessened, at least enough for them to step out and give us a shot,” Allen said. She noted that community members have formed the largest component of attendees at the annual Lemon Project Symposium. The project has sponsored numerous other community activities and is collecting oral histories on an ongoing basis.

Photo by Brian Palmer

In January 2013, a Lemon Project workshop on conducting oral histories brought husband-and-wife journalists and filmmakers Brian Palmer and Erin Hollaway Palmer to William & Mary. The two were beginning work on a documentary, “Make the Ground Talk,” about the community of Magruder in York County, settled by African Americans who had escaped bondage as well those born free — including Brian Palmer’s great-grandfather, Matthew Palmer. In 1942, the community was uprooted when the federal government seized the land to build a Seabee training base, now Camp Peary.


The Palmers have become part of the Lemon Project family and the broader journey of reconciliation in the Williamsburg area. “People want to impart to us that they were not victims — that they had a powerful, vibrant community,” Brian said. “They really want to emphasize what they built, how they built it, and how they made amazing lemonade out of the lemons of segregation.”

“We hope what we’re doing fits into the broader effort of bringing these stories to light, and bridging the gap between the scholarly community and a wider audience,” Erin said. “If people can integrate these stories into their understanding of themselves, their community and their nation, it’s a way of repairing what has been broken over hundreds of years.”

On the eve of receiving his degree in mathematics at this year’s Commencement, Leslie Walden ’15 had a special reunion with his high school principal, Lynn Briley ’71. He’d invited Briley to “don” him with a scarf of Kente cloth — a multicolored African material symbolizing rites of passage — at a ceremony in Phi Beta Kappa Hall.

“I didn’t actually touch the cloth until after the ceremony. Ms. Briley was holding on to that thing tight,” Walden said. “She was even more excited about it than I was.”

The Donning of the Kente ceremony is a new tradition introduced by the Lemon Project and co-sponsored by the Hulon Willis Association (HWA). HWA, a constituent group of the Alumni Association, honors William & Mary’s first African-American student, Hulon Willis Sr. M.Ed. ’56.

The 2015 ceremony had particular significance with the attendance of Briley, who played a pivotal role in the integration of the College — a role Walden only learned about after he had come to campus. Briley, Janet Brown Strafer ’71 and Karen Ely ’71 were the first three African-American undergraduates to live on campus, rooming together in the basement of Jefferson Hall.

A Lemon Project report on integration at William & Mary, prepared by Columbia University professor emerita Lois Bloom, documents many of the early struggles of black students to feel part of the campus community. But Briley looks back on her years positively. “If there was bigotry or racism, it was not overt. We had a wonderful experience, and we became friends with a lot of the other students. I didn’t feel support from professors, but I didn’t expect it. We supported one another.

“I never thought there would come a day when the diversity of the College would be so profound,” Briley added. “That’s the whole concept of the Lemon Project, reconciling the negative history with the positive elements of diversity on campus.”

Walden, with his newly acquired Pi tattoo and dyed blond hair, represents the current generation’s comfort with assuming unique identities. But he also identifies as part of the William & Mary family. “The whole One Tribe, One Family thing — I take that to heart,” he said.

PAST AND FUTURE: Lynn Briley '71 (left) and Leslie Walden '15, connecting across four decades of William & Mary history.
PAST AND FUTURE: Lynn Briley ’71 (left) and Leslie Walden ’15, connecting across four decades of William & Mary history.

The Lemon Project is scheduled to complete its work in 2018, issuing a comprehensive final report similar to Brown’s. In April, President Reveley charged a task force, chaired by Chief Diversity Officer Chon Glover M.Ed. ’99, Ed.D. ’06, with studying W&M’s “racial climate” and recommending future courses of action.


“I would like to see either a center or an institute for the continued study of race and race relations, and a postdoc who would come here to continue the work,” Allen said. “I’m hoping that at some point we will move into the public schools. Here you have this institution in the community that reflects such a span of African-American history — we could have a role in helping to teach that.”

There is a growing idea on campus about building a permanent memorial. As a first step, Allen designed a course on memorialization last year, open to community members and alumni as well as students and co-taught by architect Ed Pease. Guest speakers included President Reveley and Vice President for University Advancement Matthew Lambert ’99. The class led to the creation of a campus committee on memorialization.

“We had a very wide range of ideas,” said class member Stephanie Krauss ’15. “Adam Ferguson, who works at the Reves Center, designed a path starting at the ancient campus that was a timeline of slavery at the College, kind of like the Freedom Trail in Boston. It’s something I think would be really powerful. You’d notice it if you were walking there — it’s inescapable.”

Hope Wright emphasized the importance of a living legacy of remembrance. “You don’t finish the work just to put it on the shelf,” she said. “It should always be remembered, always be a part of the fabric of campus. We never want to get too far away from the work that Lemon did and his contributions to the College.”