In my everlasting search for materials relating to African Americans in Special Collections, I was pointed to the 1921 edition of the Colonial Echo. Within its worn cover, there is a single page spread entitled “The Dark Side of College Life.” These are the only words. The rest of the page is filled with several black and white photographs of exactly what one might expect – black employees of the College. Their identities are unknown as the editors of the Colonial Echo did not choose to include the individuals’ names. It seemed to me that this ‘exploration’ of this so-called dark side was a little lacking.
As we enter into the second semester of the 50th Anniversary of African Americans in Residence and begin Black History month, it seems fitting to examine and celebrate the College’s history with the African American community. Full integration – where African American students lived on campus amongst their peers – did not occur until 1967. William & Mary, however, has had a relationship with African Americans since its earliest days.
The College purchased Nottoway Quarter, a nearby tobacco plantation, in 1718. The sale included 17 slaves. By 1777 the plantation was leased, but many of the slaves remained in the possession of the College. Slaves were an integral part of the day-to-day goings-on of William & Mary throughout the antebellum period. While records of these slaves are few and far between because of the fires the College endured in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries, a “List of Slaves Owned by the College” remains.
Where Brown Hall sits today at the corner of Prince George and North Boundary Streets once sat the Bray School. The original building can be found today at 524 Prince George Street. Between 1760 and 1765, the Bray School served as a school for free and enslaved black children, including those owned by the College.
Though it wasn’t until 1951 that an African American student attended William & Mary, George Greenhow considered himself to be “the only negro ever educated at William and Mary College.” Greenhow served as a janitor during the antebellum era and was taught how to read and write by a student attending the College. In return, Greenhow did the student’s laundry. Until 1951 when Hulon Willis Jr. Began his studies at William & Mary, Greenhow remained the only African American to gain an education – albeit it secondhand – from the College.
After the Civil War, William & Mary closed its doors to students, but the presence of African Americans did not cease. Malachi Gardiner, a black tenant farmer, aided College President Benjamin S. Ewell in ringing the Wren bell every day. The ringing of the Wren bell served to remind the town of Williamsburg – and the nation – that William & Mary would soon reopen its doors.
Though William & Mary wouldn’t hire its first Black faculty member until the middle of the twentieth century, Henry Billups was lovingly referred to as the Professor of Boozeology. His ability to procure alcohol for staff and students during Prohibition, however, is what earned him his nickname. An employee of William & Mary from 1888-1952, Billups held many different positions. In 1935, Billups was gifted a pocket watch by the Society of the Alumni for 45 years of faithful service. Today, that watch – along with the portrait Billups was gifted upon retirement – are housed in Special Collections.
In 1926, William & Mary received one very controversial gift; a flagpole given by none other than the Ku Klux Klan. The presentation ceremony brought 5,000 individuals to campus. The College’s president at the time, President Julian A. C. Chandler, used the ceremony to denounce the work of the KKK, despite having accepted the gift. The flagpole has changed locations many times over the years. Today, Professor of English Emeritus Terry Meyers is still searching for the flagpole’s final resting place.
Only six years prior to William & Mary’s first African American student, Hulon Willis Jr.’s matriculation, Marilyn Kaemmerle, the Editor in Chief of William & Mary’s Flat Hat News, was almost expelled for writing and publishing the article “Lincoln’s Job-Half Done.” In the article, Kaemmerle called for the integration of William & Mary and the legalization of interracial marriage. Though she was allowed to graduate, Kaemmerle was removed from her position with the Flat Hat. In the 1980s the Board of Visitors issued an apology to her.
Written by Mallory Walker, Mosaic Fellow.