Winter 2021 Issue

Breaking the Color Line


Interviews By Jennifer Page Wall and Claire De Lisle
Illustrations By Laura Freeman

Winter 2021 Issue

Breaking the Color Line

While belonging is one of William & Mary’s core values, for some in our community, it is one that still feels aspirational. Despite the oft-quoted mantra from the 1949 student handbook, those who come here have not always felt that they belong here. Our Black students and alumni, in particular, have had very different experiences on campus than their classmates. What can we learn from their stories?

Last summer, a movement erupted from a series of tragic events that magnified the importance of learning from the past and confronting the racial disparities and injustices that have shaped our nation. As William & Mary grapples with its own racial history, there is also opportunity to work together to create a future where everyone feels like they do belong.

Healing begins with a willingness to listen. Six alumni recently gathered via Zoom from around the country to tell personal stories about their experiences as Black students at the university. Their stories reveal some hard truths that may seem foreign to some and all too familiar to others. Despite the challenges they faced as students, these alumni have remained engaged with alma mater and committed to improving William & Mary for those who follow in their footsteps. They are giving voice to a story that has not often been told, but is one that is important for us to hear — perhaps now more than ever.

Viola Osborne Baskerville ’73, Matt Brandon ’92, Dave Scott ’93, Hilary Grant Dixon ’00, Danielle “Danny” Greene ’12 and Johnny “Mick” Mickens ’14 are charting their own separate paths forward, but on one particular day this past October, their paths converged and an important conversation commenced.

Scott led the discussion and asked everyone to share their experiences, difficult moments and memorable relationships — and the hope they have for the future of their alma mater, for all of the students today and for those yet to come.

As their connections with William & Mary have grown over time, they are lifting others as they climb. Their stories will always remain powerful threads of the university’s storied past and as they are told from one generation to the next, they will serve as reminders that our community is stronger when we learn and understand together.

Moderator Dave Scott ’93 is global head of business marketing at Twitter and a member of the W&M Alumni Association board. Viola Baskerville ’73 is a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates. Matt Brandon ’92 is chief advancement officer for inclusion and diversity for Virginia Tech. Hilary Grant Dixon ’00 is a children’s book author and photographer and a member of the Hulon Willis Association board. Danielle Greene ’12 is a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University. Johnny Mickens ’14 is a senior risk management specialist at IHS Markit and a member of the Annual Giving board.

Dave Scott: Why did you choose William & Mary?

Matt Brandon: I went to boarding school and my roommate was set on going to William & Mary. He and I had a pretty competitive relationship. And I said, “Well, if that’s where you want to go, I’m going to look at it, too.”

Once I saw it, I knew immediately it was where I belonged, and I never regretted it for a single day. I felt W&M was a place of gravitas, important to the country, academically superior and small enough for me to thrive.

My dad came and visited with me, and he met Dean Carroll Hardy HON ’12. When we got back in the car to come home, he said, “This is where you’re going. Before I told you it was going to be a Virginia school. Now I’m telling you, it’s going to be William & Mary.” Fortunately, I happened to agree.

An admission counselor actually called my high school guidance counselor to tell her, even before I heard the news, that I had gotten in and that they wanted me to come.

I grew up in the inner city of Richmond and my dad would put William & Mary stickers on the back of his car. I remember coming home on the weekends and people asking, “Who goes to William & Mary?” and my dad would say “My son.” They couldn’t imagine a kid from that area going to this university. My dad was proud and I took a lot of pride in it, too.

Viola Baskerville: William & Mary was not on my list at all. I left Richmond at 13 to attend a girls’ college preparatory school in Massachusetts. My counselor in my dorm was from the same town as Virginia’s former governor Linwood Holton, who was very serious about searching far and wide for African American students. W&M was one of the state institutions that had been mandated to desegregate. My counselor convinced me to apply.

When I got there, for the first month, I was thinking of every way I could transfer. The president of W&M at the time was Davis Paschall ’32 and he was going by the letter of the mandate to desegregate, but not the spirit, so things were very tense on campus. The class I came in with only had six African American students, although there were a few Black upperclassmen and graduate students too.

Johnny Mickens: Danny and I went to a majority Black high school, and I was kind of worried about the population of Black students at William & Mary. But I went to Escape weekend for admitted minority students, and just meeting the community there helped a lot of those fears, as did Danny going two years ahead of me.

Hilary Dixon: The summer of 1993, I spent two weeks down at William & Mary at the “Exploring Medical Careers Camp” that was sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Dr. Carroll Hardy [then associate vice president for student affairs]. The first week was the most miserable week of my life. I’d never been away from home before. I went to an all-girls Catholic high school that was predominantly white, and this was the largest concentration of Black students I’d ever been exposed to. The cultural adjustment and the fact that I’d never been away from home before made my experience just miserable at first. But it turned out to be the best two weeks I ever had, so I decided to apply based on that experience and the impact Dean Hardy had on me.

Scott: I, like Hilary, came from a Catholic high school where there were no Black people. So when I came to W&M, I thought it was extremely diverse, because every single class had at least one or two other Black people in it. My friends in California were at schools where that wasn’t the case.

Scott: Tell us about experiences at William & Mary that stand out for you, both positive and negative.

Danielle Greene: When I got to William & Mary, a friend that I had gone to middle and high school with was across the hall from me, and I had a distant cousin three doors down. I think there were three or four Black women in Barrett.

One of my very first interactions was with one of my neighbors. She also came from the Richmond area, but she went to a pretty expensive private school. I said, “Oh, you know, I’m from Richmond, too,” trying to make a connection. And she asked, “What high school did you go to?” And I said, “Henrico,” And she was like, “Oh, that’s terrible.”

At that moment, I was very, very frustrated. I remember saying, “You know that’s funny, because we both live on the same hall now, so your parents paid a whole lot of money and yet somehow we made it to the same place.”

I didn’t really feel like W&M was home until I met some key people. I met Chon Glover [chief diversity officer] and Vernon Hurte [director of the Center for Student Diversity]. I found the CSD, and I started spending almost every day there. It was my safe haven. I felt really supported in that space.

In my classes, I very rarely was the only Black student. There were also really welcoming off-campus spaces that were created specifically by Black students, like people’s apartments or the unofficial AKA house. Some of the most magical moments were in those spaces.

Professor Jody Allen [director of the Lemon Project and history professor] is really important to me. Even though she had things to do, she would let me come into her office and just talk to her about anything, even though I hadn’t been in her class in two semesters. Her door was always open.

Baskerville: When we started the Black Student Organization, there was a sense of empowerment. We were a resource to each other. If you go back and read some of the early articles in the Flat Hat, you’ll see some of the things that the Black Student Organization accomplished. We held sit-ins, and we started to get a very sympathetic ear from the next president, Thomas Graves HON ’02, L.H.D. ’15. He understood our concerns about the lack of Black faculty and diversity in classes. William & Mary started to do collaborative lectures with professors at Hampton and Norfolk State, and some things started to be addressed.

There were still remnants of that old Southern culture, though. They still had Confederate balls with guys in gray uniforms and women in antebellum dresses, and there were windows where students had Confederate flags hanging out. And so that was a reminder maybe you didn’t belong, that everyone was all mixed up about it.

Scott: The first year that I was in school, I became a dorm representative on the student council. In the first meeting, I said something like, “Yeah, what about issues facing African Americans,” and then the next thing I knew I was appointed to VP of cultural diversity.

A few months later, I was embroiled in a situation where we had a professor who was teaching a class on the War of Northern Aggression, which is what he called the Civil War, and we organized to get him removed from that class and never teach it again. And eventually he left. That was a highlight for me, being on the cover of the Flat Hat every day during that time.

Then, in my senior year, I was student body vice president. We had a situation where the Flat Hat did a series of racist cartoons. We raised it up to the administration and they defended the cartoons. And I realized just how little power I had, no matter how much goodwill I had created.

Dixon: I ran for student body president my freshman year. I had gone off campus with a friend for my birthday, and when I got back to my dorm, I was informed that some of my flyers had been defaced and somebody had spray painted KKK in shaving cream in front of my dorm.

My friends rallied around me and helped me keep campaigning. The administration was really supportive and understanding and asked me what I wanted to do. I just wanted to put it behind me. I lost the election. I don’t feel any one way about that. It’s just part of my story at W&M, but that was the opening chapter, so to speak.

Brandon: Some of the best moments of my life are connected to W&M. I ended up earning my varsity letter jacket for wrestling. I was a charter member of the Xi Theta chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi, which is still on campus. Dave [Scott] actually got me involved in the student assembly budget process so we had some representation — a room I never expected to be in. And the most lasting relationships in my life were created at William & Mary. My best
friend, since my first day as a freshman, is my W&M roommate Earl Granger ’92, M.Ed. ’98.

Dixon: Many of us are Greeks, and I think that was definitely one of the best experiences I had that W&M.

Greene: I wasn’t Greek, but I definitely made a lot of lifelong friends. Being Commencement speaker in 2012 stands out as a highlight for me. My senior year was also the first year of the Donning of the Kente. That was a super special ceremony to me, that we could have a graduation that specifically acknowledged Black students. I was so happy to be able to plan that.

Seeing the administration’s response to the living wage campaign was a lowlight. It wasn’t an overtly racist response, but when the vast majority of the people who are working in the service industries on campus are Black people and they are deprioritized and dismissed — that, to me, was a constant reminder of how this degree may be the only thing separating me from being treated in a similar way.

And I remember Trayvon Martin. His murder happened during my senior year. The Black community came together, but we got a lot of pushback from people who say mean things on the internet but aren’t necessarily going to say it to you. I remember feeling like a throwaway part of the community, like “You’re welcome here, so long as you are a benefit or you’re not creating too much noise.”

Scott: I was in school when the Rodney King beating happened. I was having those conversations with my white roommate and other people who were trying to wrap their heads around it, but just could never understand the same way.

Baskerville: I think we’ve all had those social justice flashpoints that occurred while we were on campus. I started to think way back to the day the students were murdered at Kent State. You felt almost powerless, but then you got together with other students to express concern, solidarity, understanding, frustration, fear, all of those kinds of things. We had protests at W&M then, too.

I do have some really great things that I miss. One was the way the Black staff at W&M just wrapped its arms around the Black students. And I don’t mean faculty, because we didn’t have Black faculty. I mean the people that served in the cafeterias, that were responsible for driving the buses. There were lots of times, especially toward the end of the week, when kids who weren’t on the meal program may not have enough money left and they just waved us through. In a sense, they were very proud that we were there because we were doing things that were breaking the color line, that they probably never dreamed would happen in their lifetimes. They treated us like extended family.

Dixon: In my time, we had Miss Ernestine in the Caf. Her face would just light up when she saw you and getting a hug from her would just kind of make your whole day.

For me, Dean Hardy, Miss Ernestine, Chon Glover, the Office Multicultural Affairs, that whole network was the backbone of my experience. I have other people that I’ve talked to from my class, but it’s nothing like the connection that I have with my Black W&M classmates.

Scott: How are you staying in touch as alumni?

Brandon: One of the most disappointing moments I had as a W&M alumnus happened four years ago. Both my daughters were accepted to W&M, but at the admission event, a student told them “Please don’t come here.” It took me the entire drive home to process that, because I thought we had moved forward. For a student to say that to a prospective student broke my heart. And so I lost the opportunity to sell my daughter on the school that I love.

I think it’s important to be willing to be an ambassador for the school as an alumnus. It is something that I take pretty seriously. I don’t have to tell someone that it is a perfect experience — what I can tell them is that it was right for me and share the benefits. I’ve worked at the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, William & Mary, Ohio University; the same challenges existed at every one of them. You don’t end up at W&M by accident. So hopefully you come with an opportunistic mind to say, “I’m going to make it my lifelong work to make sure W&M is the best place for people like me,” which is why I stay involved.

Baskerville: What got me interested in William & Mary again was three years ago, when they did the 50th commemoration of the first African American women in the dorms. And I’ve been really impressed with the work that the Lemon Project has been doing.

Dixon: I went to the first Homecoming after I graduated because relationship maintenance is very important to me. I’m on the board for the Hulon Willis Association because somebody asked me to join. So, when my classmates come back and say, “This sounds like something you’d be interested in,” or “This sounds like something we could use your help with,” I’m doing it for them first, and then by extension for the university.

Brandon: I graduated in 1992, the year the Hulon Willis Association was created, and it has been my touchpoint with W&M ever since. My roommate Earl and Dean Hardy worked really hard with alumni, including Alice Willis HON ’04, the widow of Hulon Willis Sr. M.Ed. ’56, as well as their two children, Hulon Willis Jr. ’77 and Kimberley Willis Miles ’80, to start that organization. And so, as I see this blossom and I see the work that’s being done now by Val Cushman [senior director of engagement and inclusion initiatives] and her team, and I’m just so gratified and happy I stuck with it.

Greene: I try to do what I can to make sure the students that are there now feel supported, and if that takes financial commitment, then that’s what I do. I’ve never donated to my class since my senior year. I just don’t feel that connection in the same way. I donate when I can designate it to CSD or HWA or to the Lemon Project, and I know others do as well.

Scott: There's been a lot of dialogue on campus about renaming buildings and removing statues. How do you feel about your role as alumni while W&M is considering such significant things as race and the history of African Americans on the campus?

Dixon: Just because you’re removing a name doesn’t change the history. I think so long as the university continues to move forward with things like the Lemon Project and recognizing the history that was borne on the backs of Black people, that’s the most important thing. We need to move forward and focus on what we can do to be better.

Greene: For me, what we memorialize is what we celebrate, what we honor. There are ways to stop celebrating certain people without removing their names. But how are we contextualizing? Are we just going to put a plaque at the feet of Thomas Jefferson about his slaves, when he has this whole statue? I’m more a fan of putting the statue in a museum — maybe it doesn’t deserve a prominent space on our campus.

I’m not ready to give W&M a pat on the back just yet. Our numbers are still lower than the percentage of Black people in the state of Virginia or in the nation. That’s not to say that other places are doing better, but I want to make sure that we don’t just get caught up in symbolism when there are actions that W&M could and should be taking.

Brandon: William & Mary has more of a history to contend with than just slavery. W&M was created to “educate” the Indians, and those Indians were treated like prisoners. We can’t apologize for American history in 1693, but what we can do is make sure we honor the future by committing to more things like the Lemon Project. There is going to be a memorial to enslaved people on historic campus soon. I think that we have to be complete in our telling of our history and own all of it, not just the parts that are politically expedient right now.

Scott: What advice would you give other Black alumni about getting involved at William & Mary?

Brandon: Your time, talent and treasure are the solutions to our full access, full acceptance, full participation. Everybody has their own strategy, their own philosophy and their own history, but we all have the same alma mater. It’s important for us to be seen, to be present, to be participants in the full life of the university so that we have a right to ask the university to be full participants in our lives.

Baskerville: I would have to tell students that it’s only a short portion of your life, but it could mean so much, and not to pass up any opportunity that speaks to your passions and interests. Get outside your comfort level. Be bold. Do things that scare you, because sometimes they bring the best rewards.

Greene: As alumni, we can keep our foot on the gas about the things that we want to change and wield the power we have as a collective to ensure that changes are made. We can try to make it better for the people who are there now than maybe it was for you.

Mickens: I definitely feel a sense of responsibility to stay involved, because who better to tell the stories that are underrepresented than us? If we’re not doing it, then is it going to be told and is it going to be told correctly?

Dixon: You know, I really like that message of time, talent and treasure, because it gives you the flexibility to choose where your gifts would be best received. It doesn’t have to be about opening your wallet. It can be about the relationships that we have developed and fostered. Think about some of those good experiences that you had during your time. Reach out to the people in those memories. So, start small, but just start somewhere.

For more information about the Hulon Willis Association and to get involved, visit their website.