In this piece from ROCKET Fall/Winter ’19, Features writer Sunita Ganesh explores the built environment of William & Mary and the ways that Black history has been and continues to be erased from campus. She interviewed Dr. Jody Allen, director of The Lemon Project, and Dr. Susan Kern, Executive Director of Historic Campus, to learn more about their studies of William & Mary’s Black history and the university’s hidden landscape.
1619 marks the start of the complicated relationship between labor and image in American history. The arrival of “20 or some odd” enslaved persons from Africa at Point Comfort, only a few miles from Williamsburg, catalyzed the colonies’ use of enslaved laborers. This labor would serve as the backbone for the construction of not only United States of America, but also of William & Mary.
The Wren Building has sat as the heart of Historic Campus since its completion in 1700, seven years after the College’s charter was issued. The building is indisputably iconic, as both the oldest academic building in the country and a contemporary staple in ongoing collegiate life. It is one of William & Mary’s most significant artistic contributions to the American architectural canon. Students vie to take classes in the Wren specifically for the appeal of its history and the magnetism of its aesthetic. Its looming presence, in many ways, symbolizes the allure of being a student at the College while also physically imposing our general creed – tradition, gravitas, and legacy.
It is not only appearances that matter; names hold a specific power to highlight and erase certain parts of communal memory. The name “Wren” came about only in 1931, through the reconstruction of the building as a part of philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s restoration of Colonial Williamsburg. This project was part of the Colonial Revival movement, a school of history that valorized the imagined austere aesthetic and ethos of Colonial America. Restoration of William & Mary’s most prominent building renamed the structure — formerly known simply as “the College” — to its current title, an homage to English architect Sir Christopher Wren. His iconic style invoked prestige in the growing professionalization of architecture during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Naming the restored building after him bound William and Mary’s aesthetic legacy and prestige to Sir Wren.
However, the Wren is built upon more than aesthetic. The idea of the nameless “the College” leaves us with ambiguity. Prior to 1931, prior to construction of prestige, how did the university community conceive of Wren’s function, both in art and utility? The unspoken labor that created our collegial aesthetic reminds us that such images also function as veneers for more complicated histories.
“It’s an exciting time in institutions like this, whether they’re higher education or museums about whose history is being included here,” said Professor Susan Kern. Dr. Kern is the Executive Director of the Historic Campus and explained that Wren’s 1931 reconstruction by Rockefeller birthed the beautiful and functional piece of Colonial Revival architecture as part of the movement’s attempt to construct Anglo-Saxon legacies.
“Part of this Colonial Revival period is looking for a white Anglo-Saxon history for everything — they’re proud of this relationship to the colonial past, and part of that is slapping royal pedigrees [like Wren] to everything. It gives that pedigree,” Dr. Kern explained.
The construction of an Anglo-Saxon (read: white) narrative through name and aesthetic had damaging consequences — most prominently, the erasure of Black contributions to the Wren Building’s function and form.
The construction of an Anglo-Saxon (read: white) narrative through name and aesthetic had damaging consequences — most prominently, the erasure of Black contributions to the Wren Building’s function and form. The intentionality of such erasure is complicated. Dr. Kern commented on this historical revision: “I don’t think [the architects] are particularly saying, ‘Let’s erase [Black history],’ but the only reason they’re not saying, ‘Let’s erase it,’ is because they’re not even thinking about it.”
Restorationists were primarily focused on creating an aesthetic rooted in what is unequivocally a white supremacist perspective that prioritizes Anglo-Saxon heritage. The erasure of enslaved persons from the landscape appeared as almost an afterthought in the Colonial Revival movement. Dr. Kern further dissects the complication, saying, “It’s hard to say, right? Which is more pernicious? To say that it’s not intentional erasure or that [restorationists] just didn’t think about [African-American contributions]…in the end, the damage is still the same.”
Restorationists were primarily focused on creating an aesthetic rooted in what is unequivocally a white supremacist perspective that prioritizes Anglo-Saxon heritage.
The collaboration between the Historic Campus during Dr. Kern’s tenure as its Executive Director and the Lemon Project (William and Mary’s ongoing reconciliation effort to identify and credit the labor of enslaved persons on campus), has sought to restore balance. The past five years in particular have seen increased acknowledgement of the Wren Building’s complicated past. Dr. Jody Allen, Director of the Lemon Project, notes that we’ve shown improvement as a community in interpreting the Wren Building and other aspects of the Historic Campus.
“Tours, like the Spotswood Society’s, now include all of the inhabitants of the building, certainly the faculty and students, but also the enslaved men, women, and children who were maintaining, repairing, cleaning, cooking…all of those important [roles],” Dr. Allen explained.
It’s important to note that shift is recent — Dr. Allen recalls the challenges in the fight to construct the university’s memorial to enslaved persons on the Historic Campus. “There’s still a ways to go,” she said. “There this idea of the Historic Campus as this ‘holy ground,’ and that it cannot be changed. That’s a challenge we’ve had, particularly in getting the new memorial to the enslaved constructed, which just has to be on the Historic Campus — it’s where [enslaved people] lived. And this ‘holy ground’ narrative, you know, it’s really a twentieth century construction…it’s something that was said often enough that people started believing it.”
Dr. Allen and Dr. Kern both assert Wren’s function goes above and beyond an academic building. It’s historical significance is also the result of its role in providing a domestic living space, one that asks us to look beyond the veil of academics and their aesthetic allure in order to acknowledge the shared community among Wren’s inhabitants.
The whole building is a slave landscape.
“The whole building is a slave landscape,” said Dr. Kern. The interactions between faculty and students and the enslaved labor that supported and fostered them draw out a history of the building that contrasts the Colonial Revival pomp and circumstance in which the Wren is shrouded. For the enslaved people who lived and worked in the Wren, the building was a domestic space; it was a space of daily existence and care.
Scholars such as Dr. Kern and Dr. Allen are only recently uncovering Wren’s role as a home for members of the College who were not acknowledged as such. The instinct to consider the Wren Building sacrosanct and strictly academic creates a false dichotomy between that and the aesthetic of community linked to Wren’s prior domestic function. It’s also fair to ask whether our conception of Wren’s austere aesthetic is belittling and invalidating to the histories of the enslaved laborers who preserved Wren as a home for so long. It necessitates a complicated responsibility for students. While embracing the building’s aura of academic grace, we must simultaneously embrace its foundations in the labor that birthed a community of unspoken artists and architects.
Dr. Allen summarizes this tension and asserts the necessity of both aesthetic traditions: “If you’re going to be truthful, it has to be both of those things. I don’t think there’s a reason to take away the ceremonial piece. It’s great that people go there when they’re getting ready to graduate and ring the bell. It’s great to see the first year students come through after Convocation. It’s great that seniors meet up there [for Commencement] and walk to Kaplan. None of that should change — these are nice traditions,” she said.
She continued, “But the reality is that in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and even the first part of the nineteenth centuries, enslaved people lived and worked there and maintained it. You can’t get rid of either [narrative]. Both stories have to be told. And we also need to continue to remember those folks, because not remembering them won’t make them go away. That history will always bubble back up until you do the right thing, and that’s really what we’re trying to do now. It’s not an either or — it’s both, that’s the reality.”
Article by Sunita Ganesh. Illustration by Hannah Lowe.