In Prince Edward County, the university’s new president, W. Taylor Reveley IV, 40, went on the record to say he was "deeply sorry" for the college’s role in massive resistance to school desegregation. He is also offering a scholarship for a student passionate about equal access to education and proposing a partnership with the county’s civil rights museum.
While Reveley, like me, is too young to have witnessed Prince Edward's segregationist past, he feels connected to its history. That’s in part because his grandfather became president of nearby Hampden-Sydney College during the school closures, which lasted from 1959 to 1964. And unlike the other college in the area, Longwood declined to invite Robert F. Kennedy to speak when he visited the town in 1964 to address the crisis.
"There were still some things that lingered about the way Longwood acted, especially during massive resistance, that I thought needed to be talked about squarely," Reveley said.
Two hours away in colonial Williamsburg, Reveley’s father, W. Taylor Reveley III, is making amends, too. The president of the College of William and Mary, the older Reveley also decided to address his school’s history of slavery and has overseen an investigation into its past. The elite public institution in 2009 acknowledged it had "owned and exploited slave labor from its founding to the Civil War" and that it had "failed to take a stand against segregation during the Jim Crow Era."
Blacks have long felt they weren’t welcome on this campus unless they were pushing a broom, said Jody L. Allen, a history professor who oversees an initiative at William and Mary that’s researching the history of African Americans at the college and encouraging black residents to come to campus. A list of 15 people enslaved by the college has been discovered through the Lemon Project. In fact, the initiative is named after one of those slaves—a man known simply as "Lemon" who died in 1817. The project has uncovered just how much slavery pervaded the school’s history, from the tobacco plantation it purchased in 1718—whose profits funded scholarships for poor whites—to its president in the 1830s, who became a thought leader in opposition to abolition. That legacy continued through the 1960s, when a proponent of school segregation was named president as a reward for the work he had done to prevent integration.
"Ignoring our history doesn’t make it go away. It always ends up bubbling back up to the top at some point," Allen said. "It may be squished down for a while but it will always come up in different ways."
I feel the same way about the resistance among some people in my hometown to acknowledging its past.
The Lemon Project has for a number of years hosted annual symposiums that bring community members together to share research and discuss how to confront this past. At the first one five years ago, community members recalled how they were treated during the Jim Crow era and made it clear, Allen said, that it’s up to the institution to repair its relationship with the groups it once marginalized: "That’s why we need to deal with our history, or they will never start to feel like William and Mary is a place for them."