Week 5: Monuments and Memorialization

As a fully funded Ph.D. student, I have to work an assistantship that the school provides in exchange for my stipend. As some of you may know, this is my second year working on the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation for my assistantship. The Lemon Project is a multi-pronged approach to rectifying wrongs perpetrated against African-Americans by the College of William & Mary through action or inaction. We do research on slavery and Jim Crow segregation at the College and in the surrounding Williamsburg area, as well as work on the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow; community outreach; and student engagement. Our programming for the community and students includes Lemon’s Legacies Porch Talks, informal conversations about numerous topics; our biannual Drum Circles, a stress reliever event; an annual Symposium, which is comprised of scholars and community members alike; Donning of the Kente, a graduation celebration; and Branch Out, a three-day intensive “trip” in which students produce some type of project based on research about African Americans at William & Mary.

I love the Lemon Project. I love the work we do, how we do it and the community of scholars and peers I have because of my work with the Lemon Project. I particularly love the relationships I have built with students because of their interest in the project; it has been so gratifying to see some of the students that I had on my first Branch Out trip in 2017 now becoming some of the biggest supporters of the Lemon Project on campus.

It is with great pride that I get to take part in another momentous occasion in our campus’ history because of Lemon. When the Lemon Project was created, part of the resolution called not only for the creation of the Lemon Project which would do some of this corrective labor, but also for a memorial to the enslaved at the College. This August, the dream of the memorial finally came to fruition, at least in the first stages. The College announced a contest that will run until October 12th to solicit ideas for the memorial. Anyone with an idea can enter, no artistic skill required.

In an attempt to drum up conversation about the contest and memorial, the Lemon Project recently held a Porch Talk entitled, “William & Mary’s Monumental Moment,” a conversation led and facilitated by the director of the Project, Dr. Jody Allen, and history professor, Dr. Jerry Watkins, III.

Truth be told, I am not one to think much about monuments and memorialization. If I had to guess, I think it’s because they feel so stagnant. Depending on the size, placement and type, monuments can be dismissed and ignored. A monument often feels like an object that you have a solemn moment before, and then move on about your day, utterly unchanged by having experienced it. You can’t carry it with you.

But this ongoing conversation we are having at my university about monuments and memorialization is making me come to terms with what I do think is valuable memorialization.

Personally, I find value in so-called living memorials, like scholarships. At the University of Virginia, I was the recipient of a Ridley Scholarship, named for the first African American graduate of the University, receiving a doctorate in education from the Curry School. While I was at UVA, I was so aware that I was carrying on this man’s legacy. I made sure to learn everything I could about him, I tried to foster community amongst the scholars to make UVA a welcoming place for future generations of students, and I proudly worked for the Ridley Scholarship organization for two years, attempting to bring honor to the name I was representing. Despite having spent considerable time away from UVA, I still consider it one of the biggest honors of my life to have been a Ridley Scholar.

I want that feeling for William & Mary African American students. I want there to be students proudly carrying on Lemon’s legacy, thinking about him every day and recognizing he, and so many others, made it possible for them to inhabit this space.

Of course, you can’t make students feel pride, or a sense of responsibility to a name or a place, but I do feel that living memorials are an effective way to see the fruits of one’s legacy every day.

There was a student at the Porch Talk who felt that in addition to a memorial, we should strive for a building or space memorialized for Lemon, to which Black students and minorities would have access. Again, coming from UVA, where we did have the Office of African American Affairs (OAAA), I think having a space specifically for African American students is integral to their continued success on this campus. It’s not enough to have scholarships to attract students of color to our campus, but we need to have systems in place to support them once they get here.

The conclusion that I have come to is that it is not enough for me to have a physical memorial. I want a physical memorial and a physical space for African American students and a living memorial in the form of scholarships. I don’t think that retribution can fully be paid with a slab of stone. (Just an example; the parameters of the contest make it clear that the monument could be anything.) I don’t think that it is enough to rename a dormitory in the name of a man our school enslaved. I believe those are steps to take and they’re important, but I want us to go above and beyond.

I know that just having a memorial is a huge step for our school; coming on the heels of the College’s apology for slavery, this is their first move forward. I hope that the judges of the contest and our College’s President pay particular attention to the voices of Black students and community members in what they want for this monument and what they want to use it for. This is what everyone has been waiting for; I hope they don’t disappoint.

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