Etched in Stone: Representation among William & Mary memorials

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William & Mary’s first African-American residential students, Lynn Briley, Janet Brown Strafer and Karen Ely, will also be honored at the 2018 Commencement ceremony. Click for more information. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)

Standing bronze and immortal on the winding grounds of William & Mary are images of long-dead men.

Names like Miller and Wren are inscribed on buildings, insinuating the ghost of a great history. But of these markers, few academic buildings bear the name of a woman, and no statue represents somebody who is neither white nor male.

Even a griffin has been memorialized as a statue before any female or person of color.

This February after more than three centuries of existence, a unanimous decision by the college’s Board of Visitors elected the first female president.

Katherine A. Rowe was sworn in July 1 a few months shy of the centennial anniversary of William & Mary’s coeducation, when 24 women were admitted as undergraduate students in the fall semester of 1918.

“It will bring such a violent change in our student life and traditions that the old College will never be what she has been and what we have loved,” wrote one anonymous student in the April 28, 1918 issue of the Flat Hat, William & Mary’s student paper.

“We must, as gentlemen, treat the women with respect, but we can let them know that they are not wanted and use whatever influence we have or may have to drive coeducation from our alma mater,” he wrote.

Today, according to William & Mary analytics, women make up 58 percent of the student population, and the school boasts more than 55,000 alumnae. Of these scientists, poets, writers, deans and community leaders there is much less acknowledging their existence.

Here are some of those women and their impacts on both William & Mary and the world at large:

  • Lynn Briley, ’71, Karen Ely, ’71 and Janet Brown Strafer, ‘71: Known to history as The Legacy Three, Briley, Strafer and Ely were the first African-American students to move into student residence halls. Their bravery is still recognized as a historical milestone.
  • Miriam Johnson Carter: Over a decade before William & Mary allowed African-American students in residence, Carter applied with no initial success to the school’s graduate program in education. After much persistence, she was admitted to study law and became the first female African-American student to attend William & Mary. Unfortunately, she dropped at the end of her first academic year.  
  • Beth Comstock ‘82: Comstock is an incredibly successful businesswoman, the former vice chairwoman of General Electric and a co-founder of Hulu, a worldwide streaming service. She has had her hand in many other business ventures and authored her first book in 2017.
  • Jill Ellis ‘88: Ellis is the coach of the U.S. women’s national soccer team. Her leadership has lead to numerous awards, including a gold medal at the Beijing 2008 Olympics.
  • Minnie Braithwaite Jenkins: Decades before coeducation was adopted, Jenkins petitioned the school to let her be admitted. She was denied, but her bravery is remembered through a yearly spring lecture held in her name.
  • Linda Lavin ‘59: Inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 2011, Lavin is known for her Broadway performances, television roles and prowess as a singer. In 2009, Lavin returned to her Alma Mater to teach a theater master class.
  • Christina Romer, ‘81: Roma served as President Obama’s nominee for chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers and is known for her extensive “research on the causes and recovery of the Great Depression,” according to her official white house bio.
  • Mary Jo White ‘70: White is best known for being the 31st chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission and for being the first and only female attorney for the Southern District of New York. Encyclopedia Britannica notes her effectiveness in prosecuting white-collar crimes, and official corruption.

Under the red of autumn or through late winter snow, when students walk the William & Mary grounds they can experience a living history cast in bronze or etched in stone, but they are missing a crucial piece to the puzzle.

But things are changing.

“We currently have a project underway,” Director of News and Media Suzanne Clavet said. “…a memorial to enslaved persons.”

Clavet said a competition to decide the content of this new memorial recently closed.

There is also The Lemon Project, an effort to study the school’s role in slavery and racial discrimination, and “a multifaceted and dynamic attempt to rectify wrongs perpetrated against African-Americans by William & Mary through action or inaction,” the official website states.

In honor of coeducation, William & Mary is conducting a yearlong commemoration with hundreds of events and exhibitions. Part of the commemoration includes the creation of the Physical Objects Subcommittee, Clavet said.

“I do know that the campus landscape is very much on their minds,” Clavet said.

CLARIFICATION: WYDaily has removed the name Brafferton from the second paragraph of this story. The article implies that the Brafferton building is the named after a person, but it is actually named after the estate of English scientist Robert Boyle.

We have also included an ellipses to the quote in the 12th paragraph, indicating that there is a break in quoted material. The full quote reads as follows: “We currently have a project underway, there’s a competition to, we’ve closed the competition as far as submitting plans or ideas for a memorial to enslaved persons.”

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