A Brief Look at Community and the Great Outdoors

Posted on October 13, 2020

Erna Anderson, Special Collections Exhibits Apprentice and PhD Candidate in American Studies, shares highlights from her exhibit, Putting the Unity in Community, on display in the lobby of Swem Library, now through October 29.


William & Mary Bicycle Club, 1899
William & Mary Bicycle Club, 1899 (University
Archives Photograph Collection, UA 8)

At Special Collections, much like everywhere else at William & Mary, we spend a lot of time indoors. We all come to work wearing masks, we keep six feet apart, and at the end of the day  we disinfect all surfaces, turn off the lights, and go home. With strange guidelines suddenly becoming new routines, it can sometimes be difficult to remember how things were in the Great Before. January all of a sudden feels as distant as that day in 1899 when the Bicycle Club went on an excursion around Williamsburg. By accessing archives and looking to the past, we are able to find a lineage of unity, often in the midst of turmoil and change. Special Collections is ripe with stories, memories, and memorabilia that all showcase our commitment to each other and the importance of coming together. Our current lobby exhibition, Putting the Unity in Community, highlights a few examples of outdoor community forging at William & Mary. 

With this exhibit we have chosen to display different ideas of community, the only requirement being that the activities are mainly performed outdoors. These archival materials show us that the outdoors is as broadly defined as nature is vast, and there is a plethora of adventures to embark on and participate in. While there is a historic notion that the outdoors is reserved for the privileged and able-bodied, there are activities for everyone, and everyone has a right to enjoy the outside. 

Felecia Hayes ‘21, coordinator of Black Lives Matter protests with megaphone and poster
Felecia Hayes '21 at a Black Lives Matter protest

The items in our exhibition were chosen because we can still engage in the activities they symbolize and the stories they tell. Most obviously, perhaps, are the weekly Black Lives Matter protests that are held every Saturday in Merchants Square. These peaceful protests honor the legacy of activism that is part of William & Mary, but they also serve an important reminder that events no longer receiving the same amount of news coverage is not tantamount to them no longer being relevant. Protests, activism, and civil disobedience are all essential items in the reform toolkit. More information is available on the Peaceful Protests - Williamsburg Facebook page if you are interested in participating in the demonstrations.You can also search through the Flat Hat in the W&M Digital Archive if you want to read more about student protests at William & Mary.

Letters in and of themselves may not evoke an idea of the outside, but they have the power of bringing an idea of your outside to someone elsewhere. Our collection has thousands of letters about trips all over the world, for example the Sigwald European Travel Scrapbook (SC 01316) or postcards from Series 1 of the Don Amador Papers (Mss. Acc. 2009.562). You can also visit our archives if you need inspiration on what to include in your letter, maybe a pressed flower (Mss 2011.497.01) or your favorite recipe from Rebecca Duvall’s recipe book (Mss. MsV R8)? If you are interested in finding a new penpal, there is currently a global penpal initiative for which you can sign up.

William & Mary’s bicycle club can most likely be considered a precursor to our present-day Bike Alliance, but our archive tells many different stories about outdoor exploring. You might remember the exhibit we had last year on the flight school, but did you know that a William & Mary alum performed the earliest recorded balloon flight in Virginia’s history? In 1801, Law student J.S. Watson successfully launched a hot air balloon on the Court House Green. Today, there is a History Marker on Richmond Road that commemorates this event. 

Sports are, famously, a cornerstone of many communities. An activity people can gather around, both as observers and participants. Ultimate Frisbee is no different, and William & Mary’s Ultimate past and present is a testament to the lasting power of fun, unity, and throwing a disc between friends. Special Collections has a trove of sports ephemera, including equipment like the 1920s tennis racket of Giles Buckner Cooke (UA 2009.369), scrapbooks (UA 132), and Women's Athletic Association Records (UA 83). 

Of course, the outside is also for sitting in, or maybe reading a book. Not every walk has to be a hike, and not every bike trip needs to be an excursion. But stepping outside for a few minutes can offer you a space to recenter yourself, and locate yourself within your community.