William & Mary kicks off 50th commemoration with mural unveiling

William & Mary kicked off the 50th anniversary commemoration of the first African-American students in residence with the unveiling of a mural created for the occasion. Photo by Skip Rowland ‘83

For many generations of African Americans, attending William & Mary was an impossible dream. Until the early 1950s, black students could not enroll at the university, and it would take nearly two more decades to break another barrier, when three fearless women became the first African-American students to live on campus.

Last week William & Mary kicked off the 50th anniversary commemoration of the first African-American students in residence. Over 200 people attended the opening reception, held at Swem Library, to honor the three women, Lynn Briley ‘71, Janet Brown Strafer ‘71 and Karen Ely ’71, who moved into Jefferson Hall in 1967.

“I have had the privilege of working closely with Lynn, Karen and Janet, and I can attest to their graciousness and have witnessed many of the qualities that helped them succeed at William & Mary,” said Jacquelyn McLendon, emerita professor of English and chair of the 50th anniversary committee.

President Taylor Reveley opened the ceremony by acknowledging the university’s difficult history.

President Taylor Reveley (right) welcomes artist Steve Prince to the podium to give remarks prior to the unveiling of artwork created by Prince and participants in a class he taught this summer. Photo by Skip Rowland ‘83

“William & Mary’s long life is a source of strength and pride for us, but also a source of profound regret and sorrow that William & Mary was forbidden ground for so very long to so very many people,” said President Taylor Reveley.  “We delight in honoring these path-breaking and path-finding women who made a remarkable difference in the life of the university.”

The event included the unveiling of a mural created by students, faculty, alumni and community members, which will be permanently displayed in Swem.

“We are greatly honored that the anniversary committee chose Swem Library to be the home of this important artwork,” said Dean of University Libraries Carrie Cooper. “Members of our campus community will have a space to sit and reflect on the university’s past while looking toward the future.”

The mural, “Lemonade: A Picture of America,” was created by visiting artist Steve Prince and participants in the summer “Workshop on Black Expressive Culture” course. It consists of three elements: painting, woodcuts and bronze masks.

Explaining the meaning behind the piece, Prince said, “We have the masks of the three women and the combined masks of the participants to represent that unity is much greater than the individual. Paintings of images that tell stories of the past, stories of the imagined future, stories of what took place on the day when three women entered William  & Mary. The last part is the three women carved out of wood coming at you like mighty soldiers, saying ‘We are here.’”

The commemorative artwork includes bronze masks of the three honored women and combined masks of the class participants. Photo by Skip Rowland ‘83

Azana Carr ’20 and Ellery Lea ’18 were participants in the class and partnered for the creation of their mask. This process involved creating plaster molds of their faces, making wax copies of the molds and then combining their two faces to make a new creation. From that mold, they created their single bronze mask.

“My favorite part of the class was the last day when we presented our masks to the group. We talked about their significance to us and reflected on the process and how we grew as a community through that,” said Lea.

“I really enjoyed seeing how everyone was slowly forming and shaping their ideas over the course of the class and how we worked together to make one art piece,” Carr said.

(From left) Karen Ely ’71, Janet Brown Strafer ’71, Lynn Briley ’71 and guest laugh at lighter moments told of their time at William & Mary during a dramatic performance. Photo by Skip Rowland ‘83

The ceremony also included a dramatic performance by Valarie Gray-Holmes of Colonial Williamsburg, a reading of Langston Hughes poems by Christine Fulgham ’17 and music performance by Brian Fuller ’15, M.B.A. ’17. “Boundaries Unbound” told the imagined account of a university housekeeping employee who meets the coeds and reflects on the impact that they had on her life and dreams, and the significance of their contributions to W&M.                                                                                                               

The university has a series of special events, guest speakers and performances planned this year to honor the anniversary. The series, Building on the Legacy, calls back to the Sankofa teaching that the past must be known and understood in order to move forward and make the most of the future.

“I’m excited about the upcoming events,” said Lea. “We got to experience the 50th anniversary from an artistic perspective, but seeing it from a historical perspective or hearing other people’s experiences through these past 50 years will be interesting.”