Thinking about Slavery at the College of William and Mary

By Meyers, Terry L. | The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Thinking about Slavery at the College of William and Mary


Meyers, Terry L., The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal


I. POST-RECONSTRUCTION AND ANTE-BELLUM

Distorting, eliding, falsifying ... a university's memory can be as tricky as a person's. So it has been at the College of William and Mary, often in curious ways. For example, those delving into its history long overlooked the College's eighteenth century plantation worked by slaves for ninety years to raise tobacco.1 Although it seems easy to understand that omission, it is harder to understand why the College's 1760 affiliation with a school for black children2 was overlooked, or its president in 1807 being half-sympathetic to a black man seeking to sit in on science lectures,3 or its awarding an honorary degree to the famous English abolitionist Granville Sharp in 1791,4 all indications of forgotten anti-slavery thought at the College.

To account for these memory lapses, we must look to a pivotal time in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century when the College, Williamsburg, and Virginia urgently sought a new narrative of Southern history to restore the glory dimmed at Appomattox. It was fruitless in that bruised time after the Civil War and Reconstruction to recall the shameful ante-bellum years when William and Mary's President Thomas Roderick Dew (1802-1846) and its faculty argued for slavery, not as a peculiar institution or a necessary evil, but as an absolute and necessary good.5

Since then efforts to deal with the contentious issue of slavery in the College's past have seemed to waver among three possible narratives. One possibility was to walk away, suppressing the subject by silence.6 A second was to mythologize slavery as beneficent and misunderstood.7 And a third was to affirm what Alfred Brophy, in a 2008 article, called the College's "enormous contributions to the cause of antislavery [which today] are in danger of being lost amidst talk of slavery at William and Mary."8 Brophy has in mind simply the anti-slavery views of two early and influential law professors at William and Mary, George Wythe (1726-1806) and St. George Tucker (1752-1827).

Each of these narratives has had its turn on the public stage. Silence endured for one hundred years and more, though it shared the stage for several decades with nostalgia for the reimagined ante-bellum years and, much more episodically, with a limited vision of "the cause of antislavery" which I reconstruct and enlarge here.9

I shall deal with each of these overlapping approaches, though of silence I need merely note that it appeared early in Reconstruction. An 1870 history of the College does not mention slavery and refers to "servants" only in citing a rule forbidding any except "those authorized by the F acuity" from entering "the College yard or building. "10 But the other options, of idealizing slavery as it existed locally or honoring the earlier anti-slavery sentiment at William and Mary, require fuller examination.

To reconstruct a healing version of the College's and Williamsburg's glorious pasts (as was attempted after the Civil War) required inventing a history of how benign slavery had been, locally at least. Softening reality and tidying it up was almost as easy as silence-the narrative already had local sources in the ante-bellum idealization of slavery by another William and Mary law professor, Nathaniel Beverley Tucker (1784-1851), usually called Beverley, son of St. George Tucker. This option prevailed most powerfully late in the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth when a num- ber of people connected to the College affirmed it, but it was attractive enough to have a remarkable lasting influence.11 Even in 2011, the Virginia Gazette, Williamsburg's newspaper, could mark the anniversary of the Battle of Williamsburg by claiming that "[w]hile slavery was a central point of the war, it was not much of an issue here in 1862."12

This manufactured fantasy of benign and happy slavery was part of the larger Southern mythology of moonlight and magnolias that framed the creation of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) in Williamsburg in 1889. …

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