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A century and a half after a Union victory in the Civil War, the College of William & Mary is taking down two pieces of Confederate imagery from its campus.
The college is removing two Confederate marks from prominent locations on campus: a commemorative plaque bearing the names of William & Mary alumni who fought for the Confederacy in the Wren Building, and an emblem featuring the Confederate battle flag on the College Mace.
William & Mary President Taylor Reveley announced the decision in an email to the college community Friday.
“We want to be a place that is welcoming to everyone who is part of our university’s life,” Reveley said in the email. “I have taken these steps in consultation with our Board of Visitors. In my judgment, they will allow William & Mary to move forward together without ignoring our past.”
The plaque was placed in the Wren Building in 1914 at the behest of the college’s Board of Visitors and alumni. The College Mace was given to William & Mary in 1923 by a group of alumni, students, faculty and friends of the college.
The college has relocated the Confederate plaque to the special collections division of Swem Library, while the emblem on the College Mace will be removed entirely.
The move comes on the heels of a national debate over the public display of the Confederate flag, inspired by a racially motivated mass shooting at a church in Charleston, S.C. Dylann Roof, 21, shot and killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in order to start a “race war,” according to Roof’s friends.
As the second-oldest university in the U.S. and the first located in the south, William & Mary has a long and complicated history with slavery and race.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, college buildings and facilities were built and maintained by slaves, some of whom were owned by William & Mary as an institution.
When the secession crisis turned into civil war in April 1861, most of William & Mary’s student body left the college to enlist in the Confederate army, and then-William & Mary President Benjamin Ewell served as an officer in the Confederate army.
Of the 360 William & Mary people who fought in the war, seven are known to have fought for the Union side. In May 1861, the remaining faculty voted to close the college for the remainder of the war.
In his message to the college community, Reveley said William & Mary recognized its history and sought to advance understanding its role in past events. As part of those efforts, Reveley said the Confederate plaque in the Wren Building would be replaced by a new plaque providing “as complete an account as research permits” of William & Mary people who fought for the Union, as well as the Confederacy.
The Confederate image on the College Mace will also be replaced, but the new emblems have yet to be determined.
“We do not seek to put William & Mary’s part in the Civil War out of sight or mind,” Reveley said in an email. “The College barely survived the physical, financial and human carnage of that conflict. Nor do we seek to avoid examining and learning from William & Mary’s role in slavery, secession and segregation.”
William & Mary has also set up a website discussing the college’s Civil War history, the Confederate images and Reveley’s decision to remove them. A frequently asked questions section of the website states administrators have considered removing the Confederate symbols in the past, but were motivated to act by the Charleston shooting.
“It has become clear that the Confederate battle flag has been turned irreparably into a symbol of racial hatred,” the website states. “Thus, it has no place in our ceremonial occasions or on a wall of our most iconic building.”
The images at William & Mary are not the only Confederate markers in the City of Williamsburg. A large obelisk in Bicentennial Park off South Henry Street is engraved with a Confederate flag, and serves as a memorial to soldiers from the Historic Triangle “who gave their all in the ‘Lost Cause.’”
Another marker is located in the city-owned Cedar Grove Cemetery and memorializes Confederate soldiers who were killed during the 1862 Battle of Williamsburg.
The obelisk was originally installed in 1905 on what is now the Palace Green in Colonial Williamsburg by the Williamsburg chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
With the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s restoration of the historic area in the 1930s, the monument was relocated several times, before its permanent installation in Bicentennial Park.
Scott Nelson, a historian at William & Mary, said Williamsburg’s renewed embrace of the Confederacy at the turn of the 20th century was not unique among southern towns that wanted to recognize the 50th anniversary of the Civil War.
As the South fully entered the Jim Crow Era after the end of federally sponsored reconstruction, Nelson said Confederate memorials served two purposes — the poetic and the political.
“On the one hand, stone monuments like these were about remembering Confederate dead, but they’re also about [demonstrating] who controls the center of the city.”
Nelson said Williamsburg’s Confederate memorialization never reached the levels of other southern cities like Richmond or Savannah, Ga., and the rise of Colonial Williamsburg shifted the city’s focus from its Civil War heritage to colonial and Revolutionary history.
It is that shifting history that makes Mayor Clyde Haulman oppose the removal of the city’s two Confederate markers.
Haluman, who is also an economics professor at William & Mary, said removing the markers would be akin to trying to erase history.
“It might be more appropriate to put a plaque there to explain its context and the history of why it’s there,” Haulman said.
That is the sentiment William & Mary spokesman Brian Whitson said the college is taking regarding the Confederate plaque in the Wren Building.
“The Confederate plaque that was moved to Swem actually only included 68 names — so only about a fifth of [the college’s] total involvement,” Whitson said in an email. “The new plaque will include everyone, including names of those who fought for the Union and additional names of individuals who fought for the Confederacy.”