William & Mary, A Century Ago

Posted on
August 31, 2020

Tracy Melton '85, member of the William & Mary Libraries Board of Directors, reflects on the university's previous experience with pandemic. Melton is generously donating the journal that he is keeping during the global health crisis; the journal will be open to research in 2022.

“More than thirty cases of Spanish influenza were reported at William and Mary College today and the college has been quarantined. No one is permitted to enter or leave the grounds. No deaths have been reported but several of the students are said to be extremely ill.” 

This brief Associated Press notice is dated September 25, 1918. The W&M quarantine came as the second and more deadly wave of the 1918 influenza pandemic was getting underway. The quarantine lasted eleven days. A student’s October 5 response resonates today, “The quarantine is lifted, we’re ready for anything.”

Company A, William and Mary Battalion, 1918 Colonial Echo, p. 64
Company A, William and Mary Battalion, 1918 Colonial Echo, p. 64

W&M students did not return to normalcy though. The Great War raged, and many students had joined the military or left for wartime jobs. Others stayed and drilled. As early as the spring of 1917, the campus resembled “a military institution.” Students formed a battalion and drilled two hours a day. The following academic year, Capt. Samuel Taylor commanded a reformed W&M battalion. Drilling resumed in September 1918 even as the campus remained under quarantine.

W&M’s situation was precarious. The college had suffered greatly during the Civil War and for decades after. Williamsburg had settled in as a small southern town on an impoverished and isolated peninsula. There was no paved highway between Richmond and Hampton (1924). The Jamestown-Scotland Ferry (1925), James River Bridge (1928), and Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel (1957) did not exist. Students often arrived in Williamsburg on the C&O Railway. A student described the trip in the early 1920s, “It is of that fifty odd miles of desolation that spreads itself out between here and Richmond. Passing through and musing on it as one will muse on trains, I named this wild stretch of land ‘The Country that God Forgot.’”

Wren Lawn from College Corner, 1915 Colonial Echo, front matter
Wren Lawn from College Corner, 1915 Colonial Echo, front

As the Great War began, W&M was a provincial liberal arts college with a significant history and an uncertain future. Enrollment remained modest. The 1915 Colonial Echo lists 149 undergraduates—all white males. There were fifteen seniors.

War bled the struggling college of students. The 1918 yearbook describes the impact. More than ninety freshmen had become ten seniors. Eighty-five freshmen had become thirteen juniors, the class historian reporting, “Some of our best men are in the Camps and some on board our nation’s men-of-wars scouring the seas in search of the Boches.” Sophomores counted at least fifteen classmates in the military. Some W&M students never returned from battlefields. “Perhaps it is sometimes just a little discouraging to look around our campus and see what a bare handful of students are left in college.”

Bleak times, yet W&M moved forward, and dramatically so. The Virginia legislature approved coeducation in the spring of 1918, and female undergrads arrived on campus the following September (just in time for the quarantine). Women pursued educational and professional opportunity, and the sparsely populated wartime campus had room, and a profound need for the income they would provide.

W&M 1920 freshman class, 1921 Colonial Echo, p. 117
W&M 1920 freshman class, 1921 Colonial Echo, p. 117

Dr. Julian A.C. Chandler accepted the school’s presidency in April 1919. In collaboration with some enterprising associates, Chandler initiated a campaign to take advantage of the clear need for physical expansion of the newly coed college. He leveraged the school’s substantial historical legacy in his efforts.

Chandler found key allies in Virginia Governors Westmoreland Davis and E. Lee Trinkle and school professors Dr. John Garland Pollard (later Virginia governor) and Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin. Goodwin had served as rector of Bruton Parish Church decades earlier and had overseen its restoration. He would be the visionary behind Colonial Williamsburg.

Chandler and Goodwin orchestrated a successful lobbying effort in Richmond and a major development campaign originally aiming to raise $1,440,000. Goodwin’s development efforts on behalf of W&M would directly lead to the Rockefeller connection that soon resulted in the comprehensive restoration of Williamsburg.

The W&M projects completed over the next decade or so would create a substantial portion of the old campus we see today. They would lay the physical foundation for the school to emerge as a robust liberal arts college and after World War II as a nationally prominent research university.

The list of projects is staggering: Jefferson (1921); Library Annex (1923) (now Tucker); Monroe (1924); Blow Memorial Gymnasium (1925); the brick walls along Richmond and Jamestown Road and around the original campus (1925); the Ewell monument and cemetery wall (1925); Phi Beta Kappa Memorial (1926) (burned 1953, reconstructed, now Ewell); Barrett (1927); Old Dominion (1927); Rogers Science Hall (1927) (now Tyler); Western Union Building (1928); Washington (1928); College Terrace neighborhood (begun 1928); Sorority Court (1929); Brown Hall (1930); Coed Infirmary (1930) (now Hunt); Chandler (1931); and the James Blair Drive Campus Gate (with William and Mary statues) (1928/1932). The Rockefeller restoration renovated the Wren Building, Brafferton, and President’s House and constructed several of the surrounding outbuildings during these same years. The brick sidewalks came in 1931!

Jefferson Hall, with no Jamestown Road brick wall, 1922 Colonial Echo, p. 13
Jefferson Hall, with no Jamestown Road brick wall, 1922
Colonial Echo, p. 13

W&M created a nationally recognized Marshall-Wythe School of Government and Citizenship (1922). It changed its colors from orange and white (athletic colors orange and black) to green, silver, and gold (1923) and organized the first Homecoming Day (1926). Enrollment expanded rapidly. A decade after the influenza quarantine, the W&M campus was home to 1343 students and moving forward.

Profoundly important to these developments is the racism that surrounded and infused it. I plan to address that separately but also want to remind here that this beautiful campus was built for white students only. These years also include an Anglo-Saxon Club (1923) and the presentation of a flagpole and American flag to W&M by the Ku Klux Klan, Realm of Virginia (1926). At the grandiose flag presentation, the national Imperial Wizard shared a stage with President Chandler. Colonial Echo images are brutally racist and dehumanizing. One is among the most heartbreaking that I’ve ever seen.

That racism brings us to today. We are in the midst of a hard time. COVID-19 blindsided the W&M community in March, and no one knows how this academic year will proceed. That is a pressing challenge and a real burden on us all.

And there are other challenges. They are primarily not about physical facilities. W&M has made significant progress in becoming a fully inclusive, fully equitable institution. I’ve witnessed it. More must be done. That will require looking backward, being present, looking forward.

W&M also faces the significant ramifications of technological transformation and an evolving higher education landscape. We live in contentious political times. W&M has met existential challenges in the past—wartime destruction, economic depression, and deadly pandemic—and prospered. Being resilient and positive and generous, it can do so again, today.