By Richard Pryor III
On April 19, Sewanee welcomed Dr. Jody L. Allen, Visiting Assistant Professor of History at the College of William & Mary and Co-Chair and Director of The Lemon Project, to speak about her investigation of William and Mary’s history with slavery and discrimination against African Americans. Her visit was chiefly sponsored by the newly created Sewanee Slavery Project, which was partly inspired by The Lemon Project.
According to its website, The Lemon Project is “a multifaceted and dynamic attempt to discover, acknowledge, and rectify wrongs [William and Mary] has perpetrated against African Americans by action or inaction over the course of its 300-year history.” William and Mary’s Board of Visitors began the project and acknowledged that the institution 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.”
Allen was introduced by Dr. Woody Register (C’80), Chair of the History Department and leader of the Sewanee Slavery Project, who noted that bringing Allen to campus was important for all to learn “what we can do at Sewanee” and “how we can talk more openly about not just our history, but what that history bestows on us.” Register also announced that Allen would join the History Department for the 2017-2018 academic year.
Allen began her talk by discussing the “three prongs” of The Lemon Project. The first prong is the need for archival research and the second is to develop a better relationship between W&M and the African American community of Williamsburg, Virginia, William and Mary city of residence. The third prong is to make a positive difference in the lives of William and Mary’s students of color. Allen charged the audience to think about how universities stood by church and state as instruments of bondage for African Americans.
She shared the ways in which William and Mary benefitted from slavery, including the support the school gained from the colonial government via a tax on cotton, and how William and Mary bought 17 slaves for the college’s usage.
The slaves worked constantly for the college, allowing the students to learn, live, and enjoy life at the university. Many of the slaves originally bought were around the same age as the young men in the college.
After the Civil War, William and Mary continued to support the oppression of African Americans during the Jim Crow period. Allen shared the story of Henry “Doc” Billups who, although a free man, still performed many of the tasks that slaves would have done, such as serving food, being a janitor, and ringing a bell. Billups was, however, beloved by the student body for his tendency to snitch on the administration and ensure “his boys” would not get into trouble.
In 1965, Hulon Willis Sr. and Edward Augustus Travis became the first African American students at the college, only allowed to attend because the historically black college of Virginia State College did not offer degrees in their fields of study at the graduate level. The first undergraduate admitted, Oscar Blayton, was poorly treated during his two years on campus from 1963 to 1965.
Allen concluded by discussing how The Lemon Project was designed to change the culture at William and Mary. “If it just sits on a shelf, and every few years it gets dusted off, someone reads it, and says ‘look what we did!,’ we will not change anything,” she commented. Allen shared her hope that it would inspire students to share their stories and listen to the stories of others.
Allen will teach as a member of the Sewanee faculty for the 2017-2018 academic year in the History Department. She will also assist Register and Tanner Potts (C’15) with the Sewanee Slavery Project.