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.

The Founding and Early Years

The Bodleian Plate

From its earliest days, the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg depended on financing derived directly and indirectly from the exploitation of enslaved people. This included the tuition paid by wealthy plantation owners; taxes, fees, and revenues allocated to the college by its royal charter (“a penny per pound, for every pound of tobacco”); and lands it owned and leased that were worked by enslaved men and women. The most generous founding donors of the college included Micajah Perry and Thomas Lane, merchants whose money came from trading in both tobacco and human beings.

The construction of the college’s main building in 1695 (later the Wren Building) involved forced labor. Though skilled masons were brought from England, the hard labor was done by enslaved workers owned by the contractor. Two other enslaved men were leased from James Blair, an Anglican minister and the college’s powerful president for life. Enslaved workers also built the Brafferton, a house originally used as a school for Indians (1723), and the President’s House (1732), both of which still stand, as well as structures long gone, including privies, a slave quarters, and an observatory.

Reverend James Blair

The first documented enslaved person at the College of William and Mary appeared in an affidavit by James Blair dated May 1, 1704. It mentions “a Negro man” owned by Blair and ordered by him in 1702 to break down a locked door; Blair’s wife’s “maid, who lay in a Closet just by” may also have been enslaved. The first enslaved person known to be owned by the college was a man named Price, a gift in 1704 from Governor Francis Nicholson and valued at £30. Price was followed over the decades by an unknown number of others, most of them recorded only in lost documents. Some of these enslaved people were leased; others are present in the surviving bursar’s books behind shadowy entries for medical, clothing, and shoe expenses. Most people were not named: “paid hire a Negro Wench 2 years”; “paid Mr Allen hire of a Negro.” Entries also record expenses for several coffins (a burial ground for enslaved laborers has yet to be discovered) and even for purchases of hops, pork, beef, mutton, and butter from enslaved workers at the Nottoway Quarter, a working plantation acquired by the college in 1718 for £150. For an additional £476 the college purchased seventeen enslaved people who worked 2,119 acres of tobacco. The farm’s profits paid for scholarships, known as Nottoway Foundations, for less wealthy students.

On February 27, 1729, James Blair and Stephen Fouace, the last surviving member of the original board of visitors, formally transferred governing authority of the college from the original founders to the president and masters, or members of the faculty. Included in the transfer were “all the negro slaves by the said trustees, from time to time purchased, now living upon the said lands or any part of them or parcel thereof and their increase.”

Enslaved Community

Carte des Environs de Williamsburg en Virginie

Enslaved people from early on lived where they worked: throughout the college’s main building, as well as in the President’s House, the Brafferton, and kitchens. In The Present State of Virginia (1724), Hugh Jones, a master at the college from 1717 to 1721, wrote that the difficulties in controlling students were exacerbated by “the many Servants lodged in the College and the several Doors and Ways to get out of it.” He argued that the need for a separate slave quarter was compelling. “There [is] a very great Occasion for a Quarter for the Negroes and inferior servants belonging to the College,” he wrote, “for these not only take up a great deal of Room and are noisy and nasty, but also have often made me and others apprehensive of the great Danger of being burnt with the College, thro’ their Carelessness and Drowsiness.” At least one slave quarter was eventually built, but it is not known where or when. A map of the Williamsburg area made in 1782 by the French cartographer Jean-Nicholas Desandrouins shows structures close to the gardens and orchards west of the college that may have been quarters. Other buildings, such as kitchens, also served as slave quarters.

A List of Negroes at College

“A List of Negroes at College” is the only surviving catalog of men, women, and children enslaved by the College of William and Mary and dates from about 1780. The one-page document includes the names “Winkfield, Daniell, Dick—almost a invalid, Pompey, Adam, Nedd, old Lucy—a invalid, old Kate a invalid, Nanny a invalid, Effy—not much better.” It also includes people enslaved by the college but hired out for income: “Lemon, James, Letty, Charlott, Frankey, Betty and two Gerrels,” plus “Mr. Bellini’s three, Molly, Mass, and Lucy.” Some others are named in college minutes, where, for example, on December 24, 1778, the president and masters “Resolved, That a Negro Man called Nero be purchased of Dr Jas Carter, & that the President be desired to make the purchase for any sum not exceeding 500 £.”

Only a few details are known about any of men, women, and children enslaved by or at William and Mary. In 1777, the college prepared to lease or sell the Nottoway Quarter. The minutes of a meeting of the president and masters, dated December 29, 1777, direct that “all the Negroes, stock & Utensils” also were to be sold, while “two Negro Fellows & a boy [were to] be ordered down from the Nottoway Quarter, to supply the place of Hirelings in the College.” The advertisement in the Virginia Gazette, published on November 28, 1777, specified that “about thirty likely [i.e., capable or strong] Negroes” were on offer “for ready Money.” On December 29, 1779, the president and masters resolved that “Winkfield, Bob, Lemon, Adam, & Pompey be retained for cleaning the College & other necessary Purposes.” A pseudonymous letter, published in the Virginia Gazette on November 30, 1775, addressed Winkfield as the “Superintendent of the hall of William and Mary College”: “No one, of your colour, has ever established a more respectable character than yourself … You have ever been distinguished for your spirit and candour.” Jottings on a preserved copy of the paper describe Winkfield as the son of “old Liverpool, the Ferryman.”

George Tucker

Lemon shows up in the bursar’s accounts more than others—selling produce to the college and receiving a Christmas bonus in 1808, a food allowance in 1815, medicine in 1816, and, in 1817, a coffin. “Old Lemon, one of the slaves then belonging to the college,” appears in George Tucker‘s antislavery novel The Valley of Shenandoah (1824), helping the protagonist move in as a student at the college and fetching his mail; he is recalled especially for his oyster dinners, another sign of his entrepreneurship. And he is evoked in a 1797 letter as, perhaps, the namesake for what appears to be a team or group of students competing in an obscure way with other groups.


Reverend James Madison

Under financial pressure during the American Revolution, the Reverend James Madison, who served as president of the College of William and Mary from 1777 to 1812, cut back on services provided by the school to students while outsourcing others. He hired out the enslaved people the college owned. On December 18, 1779, the college announced in the Virginia Gazette that, among other things, “commons,” or the serving of meals, “shall cease at the College. The President and Professors shall allow to some sober and discreet male person, the use of the college kitchen and garden. They shall also hire to him the negroes accustomed to labour in the same, taking bond with security.” College leaders explained that “a sufficient number of slaves shall be reserved for cleaning the college,” and any others that remained “shall be hired out at publick auction.”

In the minutes of their December 14, 1780, meeting, the president and masters resolved that the men, women, and children enslaved at Nottoway Quarter be sold, “disposed of in Exchange for Lands” within a hundred miles of Williamsburg. A few weeks later, on January 1, 1781, the steward was directed “to hire out the Negroes belonging to ye College, except those necessary for ye College, & [adjoining] Farm, ye Persons hiring them to pay their Taxes & clothe them.”

Lord Dunmore's Proclamation

During the war the British offered freedom to those enslaved men who joined its army, prompting the Reverend Madison to write his brother, William Madison, on July 21, 1781, that “the College is entirely broke up … It is particularly necessary to move the few Negroes we have, as I know nothing but a lucky accident prevented most of them from joining the enemy.” After the war and in light of serious damages to the college, the president and masters resolved, in September 1782, “that so many of the Negroes not employed about the College be Sold to defray the Expense of repairing the Buildings.”

Lives and Duties

The College of William and Mary owned few enslaved people at any one time, perhaps, early in the nineteenth century, as few as five, often hiring enslaved labor from townspeople instead. Scholars have been able to place names to only about sixty enslaved people who labored at the college, with seventeen of those coming from baptismal records at Bruton Parish Church. Overseen by the mistress of the college (a hired white woman) and later the steward, these men, women, and children attended to the domestic needs of the institution and its inhabitants—cooking, cleaning, mending, washing, and attending the sick. At its October 24, 1716, meeting, the board of visitors ordered that its housekeeper, Mrs. Barrett, be provided with “a servant to Shutt the Gates, ring the bell, and to help to clean the house.” A later mistress of the college was directed, on February 9, 1763, to remain as much as possible on campus, “as we all know that Negroes will not perform their Duties without the Mistress’s constant Eye especially in so large a Family as the College.” On August 28, 1769, college leaders resolved that an enslaved boy “be appointed to go into the Town on errands from the young gentlemen between the hours of eight & twelve o’clock in the morning, and at no other time.”

In August 1768, the president was empowered “to hire two Negroes … for Cutting and Carting Wood on the College Lands for the Use of the said College.” In 1779, the College steward and gardener was to be assisted by “two men & a boy.” Faculty resolutions in 1837 directed that “Joe the College servant … cut four cords of wood weekly during the recess, and that Mr. Pryor the constable be employed to measure such wood and see that this order is fulfilled.” Joe was also to “whitewash and clean the College chambers and Lecture rooms.” Some wealthier students in the eighteenth century brought their own “servants” to attend to their needs, eight in 1754 alone; a college regulation, published in 1727, required “That the masters and Scholars keeping waiting Boys pay Five Pounds per Annum for their Board.”

A series of accusations and depositions swirling around a housekeeper named Maria Digges offers a glimpse of life for enslaved people at that time. On May 27, 1775, a group of students and ushers, or assistant teachers, brought a complaint to the president and masters against Digges. She was accused of a number of offenses, including a capricious “Power over the Domesticks.” According to the testimony of one student, this meant that “Servants cannot be had to clean his Rooms: in particular a Boy was wanting last Summer.” Another complained that he had “wanted a Servant to go down Town, & been unable to get one.” Digges also was accused of having “intrusted the Keys of the Store Room to the Slaves to which they have been seen to have free Ingress & Egress.” A witness added that he had “sometimes seen the Servants without any white person with them.” A member of the faculty countered that “Negroes are not often entrusted with the Keys of the Store room, and the College has received no loss on that account.” The college nurse affirmed that “Miss Digges’ servant … never went into the Store-room unattended by a white Person, except once.”

In absolving Digges, the president and masters drew attention to the head usher, James Innis, and his mistreatment of enslaved people. In particular, they noted “his Beating & Punishing the Negroes of the College when he thinks them in fault which has encourag’d the Students to do the same, and which tends to transfer the Command of the said Negroes from the President and Masters to the Ushers & Students to the Interruption of the Business of the College.” Later that year, on November 1, 1775, a meeting of the president and masters noted a “run of ill treatment which has of late been bestow’d by the Boys upon the Servants of the College both Male & Female,” who, it was claimed, were not acting appropriately subordinate.

The Anti-Slavery Record.

Several years earlier, on November 16, 1769, the president and masters heard a complaint against John Byrd. “After calling for a servant employ’d by the House keeper,” Byrd appeared “with a Horsewhip in his hand and taking hold of his Servant, with his whip lifted up threaten’d to whip him if he did not immediately go with him.” The housekeeper intervened and was herself threatened. When the case went to a hearing, Byrd insulted the president and masters and finally was admonished as much for that as “for disobedience of their order and ill treatment of their Servant.” On July 30, 1776, the president and masters ordered “that if any of the Servants in College presume to behave amiss to the Housekeeper or the Students,” an application could be made to an administrator, “who [may] direct such punishment as he thinks the crime deserves.”

Efforts at monitoring and controlling the behavior of enslaved people and how they were treated continued into the nineteenth century. In the 1830s, slaves were prohibited from entering the college at night except under special circumstances. In 1849, the Laws and Regulations of the College of William and Mary specified that “the Faculty shall hire as many servants as may be necessary, to ring the bell, keep the passages, stairs, recitation rooms, and rooms of students in good order; to wait on the students, and assist the Professor of Chemistry and Natural Philosophy in his experiments.” Students were prohibited from calling on enslaved people for special services, unless sick and requiring a meal.

Issue of Slavery at the College

From 1760, several early presidents helped to organize and oversee a school for the religious education of free and enslaved black children; the school was funded by a London charity, the Associates of Dr. Bray, and was affiliated with the college on the recommendation of Benjamin Franklin. It was initially overseen by the college’s president, the Reverend Thomas Dawson, and the printer William Hunter. A skilled teacher, Ann Wager, taught approximately 200 children the tenets of Christianity.

Intellectual skepticism about slavery pervaded the college from the 1760s into the early nineteenth century, a skepticism that Thomas Jefferson encountered as a student from 1760 to 1762 and which he admired and encouraged. While a law professor at the college (1780–1789), George Wythe taught against slavery. His successor, St. George Tucker, published A Dissertation on Slavery (1796), a plan to gradually abolish slavery in Virginia that was largely ignored. The college’s graduates included such abolitionists as Edward Coles and William Short. Winfield Scott noted that most of his classmates, from 1804 to 1805, left William and Mary “in favor of the gradual abolition of slavery.”

Adam Empie, who served as president from 1827 to 1836, opposed slavery. An Anglican minister from New York, he upset some Virginians by ministering to blacks and officiating their weddings at Bruton Parish Church, a dispute that contributed to his resignation in 1836. Slavery did not end at the College of William and Mary during his tenure, however, and he benefited from the services of enslaved people, including those he hired himself.

Empie’s successor was Thomas R. Dew, a professor of political law at the college who, in 1832, after Nat Turner’s Revolt, wrote a commentary on the recent debate in the General Assembly over whether to abolish slavery. He made a case against emancipation, arguing that although slavery violated the spirit of Christianity, it was instituted by God. It involved horrors but ultimately benefited black people by exposing them to a more a civilized way of life. Dew ruled out even gradual emancipation because, he wrote, blacks were “entirely unfit for a state of freedom among the whites.”

Student Humor Magazine at the College of William and Mary

By 1854, attitudes at the college, as in the state as a whole, seemed to have hardened in favor of a proslavery ideology that insisted on the positive good of slavery (as opposed to the idea that it was a necessary evil). William and Mary’s student humor magazine the Owl, dated January 1854, demonstrates the demeaning and racist ways in which students viewed the enslaved people among them. Perhaps most revealing is a cartoon, “The Horrors of Slavery in Black and White,” that illustrates in contrasting panels how it was better to be black and enslaved near William and Mary than to be white and exploited near Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut. The issue also included a protest (headed with a caricature, “Negroes Rejoice!”) against a faculty rule that, officially, stated students were not “to abuse strike or injure negroes.” In the Owl, the rule was rendered differently: “no Student shall abuse strike or injure negroes. Not even if they are grossly impertinent. Ahem!” Another comment elaborates: “this law savors of Northern manufacture, or perhaps it originated in some classic author; Horace (Greely) for instance.” (As editor of the New-York Tribune, Greeley was a moderate on the issue of slavery, opposing its expansion but not supporting its abolition.)

Benjamin S. Ewell

The College of William and Mary’s dependence on enslaved labor ended in May 1861 when Virginia’s vote of secession necessitated classes being suspended. Not long afterward, the president of the college, Benjamin S. Ewell, an engineer trained at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, was named commandant of the region. He issued a general order of impressment, to force into service the college’s and other enslaved and free blacks to build a series of redoubts against a Union advance toward Richmond.

The college’s grappling with its involvement with slavery has varied in the years since the Civil War. After the war and well into the twentieth century, faculty and presidents tended toward either silence and denial or a sentimentalizing of slavery in line with the Lost Cause view of the Civil War. In the twenty-first century, however, the College of William and Mary has faced its history of enslavement directly, beginning in 2007 and 2008, when the Student and Faculty Assemblies passed resolutions challenging the college to investigate the institution’s past ownership of slaves and practice of Jim Crow discrimination. In 2009, the board of visitors acknowledged that the school 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 board also supported the establishment of the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation, charged with documenting the college’s complicity with slavery and its aftereffects. It was named for Lemon, the enslaved man who labored at the College of William and Mary from December 1779 until his death in 1817. In 2018, the visitors formally apologized, and the college moved to memorialize those it exploited during its first 168 years.

The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg is founded by a Royal Charter from Queen Mary II and King William III.
The College (later Wren) Building, at the College of William and Mary, is constructed.
May 1, 1704
Mention of the first documented enslaved person at the College of William and Mary, dating to 1702, appears in an affidavit by James Blair.
October 24, 1716
The College of William and Mary orders its housekeeper be provided an enslaved laborer to help her shut the gates, ring the bell, and clean the house.
The College of William and Mary acquires the Nottoway Quarter, a working plantation of 2,119 acres, for £150. For an additional £476, seventeen enslaved people are purchased to work the land.
Construction is begun on the Brafferton building to house the Indian school at the College of William and Mary.
February 27, 1729
James Blair and Stephen Fouace, the last surviving members of the original College of William and Mary board of visitors, formally transfer governing authority of the college to the president and masters.
Construction of a president's house at the College of William and Mary is completed.
The College of William and Mary pays Bruton Parish Church for baptisms of enslaved men, women, and children.
September 29, 1760
The Associates of Dr. Bray opens a school for the education of free and enslaved black children in Williamsburg.
February 9, 1763
The College of William and Mary orders its mistress to remain on college to oversee the enslaved laborers.
December 1764
Thirty-three enslaved students are enrolled at the Bray school in Williamsburg.
April 20, 1768
The Associates of Dr. Bray refuses the Williamsburg school's request for additional funding.
August 1768
The College of William and Mary orders its president to rent two enslaved men for cutting wood.
August 28, 1769
The College of William and Mary orders that an enslaved boy be appointed to run errands into town.
November 16, 1769
The College of William and Mary hears a complaint against the student John Byrd for mistreating an enslaved man.
November 17, 1774
Robert Carter Nicholas reports that the Williamsburg Bray School's teacher has died and the school closed.
May 27, 1775
A group of students and ushers formally complains to the College of William and Mary about the housekeeper, Maria Digges.
November 1, 1775
The College of William and Mary acknowledges ill treatment of enslaved people by its students.
November 28, 1777
The College of William and Mary advertises the sale of enslaved people laboring at its plantation the Nottoway Quarter.
December 24, 1778
The College of William and Mary resolves to purchase an enslaved man named Nero.
The College of William and Mary authorizes the steward and gardener to rent two enslaved men and an enslaved boy to assist in his work.
The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg becomes a university but keeps its original name.
December 18, 1779
The College of William and Mary announces that it will no longer serve meals to students but will contract food service.
ca. 1780
"A List of Negroes at College" catalogs men, women, and children enslaved at the College of William and Mary.
December 14, 1780
The College of William and Mary resolves to sell the enslaved laborers at its Nottoway Quarter in exchange for land.
September 1782
The College of William and Mary resolves to sell some of its enslaved laborers to defray the expense of repairing its buildings.
A Dissertation on Slavery: With a Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of It, in the State of Virginia by St. George Tucker is published in Philadelphia and submitted to the General Assembly.
The College of William and Mary prohibits enslaved people from entering the school at night except under special circumstances.
Thomas R. Dew publishes Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature of 1831 and 1832, a work that will win him lasting fame. In it he makes a case against emancipation.
The College of William and Mary directs faculty to hire as many enslaved people as necessary to perform the basic tasks of tending to the school.
May 10, 1861
Following the outbreak of the American Civil War (1861—1865), the faculty of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg votes to close the school for the conflict's duration.
The College of William and Mary's Student and Faculty Assemblies pass resolutions challenging the college to investigate the institution's past ownership of slaves and practice of Jim Crow discrimination.
The College of William and Mary acknowledges that the school "owned and exploited slave labor" and "failed to take a stand against segregation."
The College of William and Mary formally apologizes for owning and exploiting enslaved labor.
  • Allen, Jody L. “Thomas Dew and the Rise of Proslavery Ideology at William & Mary.” Slavery & Abolition 39, no. 2 (Summer 2018): 267–279.
  • Brophy, Alfred L. “Considering William and Mary’s History with Slavery: The Case of President Thomas Roderick Dew.” William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal 16, no. 4 (2008).
  • Meyers, Terry L. “A First Look at the Worst: Slavery and Race Relations at the College of William and Mary.” William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal 16, no. 4 (2008).
  • Meyers, Terry L. “Thinking About Slavery at the College of William and Mary.” William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal 21, no. 4 (2013).
  • Oast, Jennifer. Institutional Slavery: Slaveholding Churches, Schools, Colleges, and Businesses in Virginia, 1680–1860. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  • Wilder, Craig Steven. Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013.
APA Citation:
Meyers, Terry. Slavery at the College of William and Mary. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/slavery-at-the-college-of-william-and-mary.
MLA Citation:
Meyers, Terry. "Slavery at the College of William and Mary" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 12 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2024, January 16
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