Request for Proposals

William & Mary solicits ideas for a memorial for the school’s former slaves

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The College of William & Mary is hosting an competition to design a memorial commemorating the enslaved African Americans who helped build the university. (Courtesy W&M)

The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, has announced an open call for a competition to design a memorial honoring the African Americans enslaved by the school upon its founding in 1693 until the Civil War.

The public university welcomes conceptual ideas for a physical memorial that provides an area of community and contemplation for students, teachers, and staff to reflect on its former reliance on slave labor. The forthcoming memorial must engage with the school’s Historic Campus, a two-acre, diamond-shaped site situated around The Wren Building—designed by English architect Sir Christopher Wren and the oldest college building still standing in the U.S. The adjacent President’s House and the Brafferton make up the heart of William & Mary’s colonial campus where the memorial may be constructed.

“This memorial is such an important project for our community,” said current President Katherine A. Rowe in a press release. “African Americans have been vital to William & Mary since its earliest days. Even as they suffered under slavery, African Americans helped establish the university and subsequently maintained it.”

Drawing of William & Mary's Historic Campus

Drawing of William & Mary’s Historic Campus, circa 1922–1935 (Courtesy W&M)

The project falls under the larger umbrella of a long-term initiative by the university to research its own history with slavery. As the second oldest higher education institution in the country, it used slaves for not only construction, maintenance, and service, but for funding the college in general. King William and Queen Mary of England specified in a charter that the school would be built off the profits of slaves working in tobacco fields of Virginia and Maryland. The college even owned its own plantation, the Nottoway Quarter.

In 2007, the William & Mary Student Assembly called for the college’s Board of Visitors (BOV) to create a commission to research the full depths of its contributions to slavery. They also asked that a public memorial be built as an apology and as a source of remembrance. Under the purview of The Lemon Project, which the BOV established in response, the school has been exploring these ties to slaveholding as well as its current relationship with the African-American community of Williamsburg, Virginia, for several years. Sponsored classes, research studies, symposia, and more have encouraged students and faculty to spread awareness and dive deep into the topic despite its difficult truths.

The Sunken Garden and Wren Building at W&M

The Sunken Garden and Wren Building (Courtesy W&M)

The Lemon Project Committee on Memorialization (LPCOM) was founded out of this commitment after a fall 2014 course where students considered how a memorial design might convey the history and memory of the school’s racially fraught past. The committee has spent the last several years discussing how to best approach the memorial competition, which was announced last week.

Interested participants must submit a design plan and a 500-word description of their concept by October 12 at 5 p.m. To learn more about the submission process, go here.

A jury of alumni, staff, faculty, and students will choose three ideas to show President Rowe, upon which, if the design is ready, she will share with the BOV during its February 2019 meeting.

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