Price, the Nicholson Library, and our troubling past

Posted on
September 14, 2023
Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved, the week of its dedication, May, 2022
Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved, the week of its dedication, May, 2022

The earliest known name carved on the Hearth Memorial to the Enslaved is that of a young person or man named Price. In 1704 he was given to William & Mary as a gift by the Lieutenant-Governor of Virginia, Francis Nicholson, who also gave the College his book collection to form the first library. [1] The two gifts – books and a person – complicate the early history of William & Mary Libraries and remind us of the often difficult legacies of this institution.

Although that first library burned in the Wren building fire of 1705, in recent years Special Collections has acquired other copies of those same books in order to reconstruct the ‘Nicholson Library’. This important effort both offers a look back at our institutional history and challenges us to look at Nicholson the man, including his involvement in the enslavement of Price and others, as well as other aspects of his character and career which we might consider unacceptable today.

Part of the (recreated) Nicholson Library in Special Collections
Part of the (recreated) Nicholson Library in Special Collections

Nicholson’s time as Lieutenant-Governor under the absentee Earl of Orkney saw him accused of both sexual excess and an approach to despotic power learned in England’s failed North African colony of Tangier. His attempts to woo Lucy Burwell – which included aggressive letters, trying to put her father on his Council to establish a patronage obligation, gifts, and threats to kill whomever she did marry – led her family to seek Nicholson’s removal from his post.[2] As that dispute continued, the Lieutenant-Governor allegedly also told the leaders of the College of William & Mary that they were ‘Brutes and understood not manners, that he knew how to Govern the Moors, That he would beat us into better manners, and make us feel that he was Governor of Virginia.’[3] The suggestion – that his experiences in Tangier’s garrison could be a lesson for Virginia – was evidently one he had used before, since he was also accused of telling the colonial Council that he had ‘been among the Moors’ and that they should be governed the same way.[4] These allegations led to the argument that Nicholson should be removed from his governmental role for misdirected masculinity and authority: he had abused a woman and tried to marry her against her will and that of her family and he had tried to govern as a tyrant along lines used in a military government.

Price, 1704: the earliest name on Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved
Price, 1704: the earliest name on Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved

But by far the greatest challenge for William & Mary, and the aspect of Nicholson’s behaviour which seems so extraordinary to us, was the gifting of Price to the College. In doing so, Nicholson participated in a practice which extended around the Atlantic World as enslaved people, particularly children and most often boys, were given by elite men both as symbols of power and as sources of labour.[5] These African children and young people were presented to individuals and institutions throughout the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and included such later abolitionist figures as Ignatius Sancho, Phillis Wheatley, and Olaudah Equiano.[6]

That we have a name for Price is unusual and allows us to remember him as an individual, but it is the limit of our knowledge. Was he born in Africa or the Americas? Was he given as an adult or as a young person? What was his life like, first with Nicholson and then at William & Mary? We are unlikely to find out any more, but his name and the circumstances of his presence on our campus must be always on our minds alongside that of Nicholson. While the latter remains one of the founding trustees of the university, and an early and important benefactor, we cannot separate those good legacies from the bad or from the name of Price. His enslavement sits alongside the gift of our first library as a reminder of the dual, often difficult history of our institution.


[1] Jennifer Oast, ‘“So Large a Family as the College”: Slavery at the College of William and Mary,’ Institutional Slavery: Slaveholding Churches, Schools, Colleges, and Businesses in Virginia, 1680-1860, (Cambridge: 2016), 126-58. See also Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, (New York: 2013), especially 42-44.

[2] See in particular Kathleen Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs, (Philadelphia: 1996), 254-57.

[3] Affidavit of Stephen Fouace, 25.04.1704, Rockefeller Library, Colonial Williamsburg, Nicholson Papers, MS 43.04.

[4] ? to Nicholson, Chelsey, 08.12.1702, Rockefeller Library, Colonial Williamsburg, Nicholson Papers, MS 43.04.

[5] Phillip Emanuel, “‘[A]s Fast as Ships Return he Will Send Every one a Boy’: Enslaved Children as Gifts in the British Atlantic”, Slavery and Abolition, 44: 2 (June, 2023), 334-49.

[6] Ignatius Sancho, Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, An African, to which are prefixed Memoirs of his Life, (London: 1782); Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, (London: 1773); Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, (London: 1794).