Author: Terry L. Meyers

Chancellor Professor of English, Emeritus, at the College of William and Mary.

Slavery at the College of William and Mary

The College of William and Mary utilized the labor of enslaved African Americans from the earliest days of its construction, in 1695, until the beginning of the American Civil War (1861–1865), when the school suspended classes. Enslaved laborers built the college’s main building, the Brafferton, and the President’s House, and later performed the duties of taking care of the school, its professors, and its students. Besides those it directly enslaved, the college depended on the forced labor of those being hired out from other owners. Although documentation of their lives is scarce, it’s clear they kept student rooms and classrooms clean, served meals, shined shoes, rang the bell, ran errands, cut wood,performed maintenance and repairs, and gardened. Enslaved people were subject to often harsh discipline and abuse by faculty, staff, and students, who often viewed them as lazy, incompetent, and inferior to whites. During the American Revolution (1775–1783), many slaves were sold when the college’s finances became precarious. From about 1760 into the early Federalist period, intellectual skepticism about slavery was strong, but by the middle of the nineteenth century, a proslavery ideology had taken hold and was promulgated. In 2009, the College of William and Mary established the Lemon Project, charged with documenting the institution’s complicity in slavery and its aftereffects. The college officially apologized for that complicity in 2018.