As hundreds of students walk through the diamond pathways in the heart of the William & Mary campus for years to come, one woman who changed the history of the school will be remembered.
“Although [Mary-Cooke Branch Munford] was born in the 19th century, I would describe her as a 21st century woman,” said Jayne Barnard, a professor of law at the college, at the dedication of Munford Plaza Thursday morning.
Munford is one of the leading forces responsible for the coeducation of students at William & Mary in 1918.
While Munford was denied a college education during a time when it was not deemed acceptable for women to enter higher education, she longed to give that opportunity to others, Barnard said.
She started the organization Coordinate College League and began lobbying the Virginia General Assembly for accessible education, including the education of women, in 1910 and failed to be successful for nearly a decade.
It was with the University of Virginia that Munford received the most resistance, however her efforts resulted in the admittance of women to William & Mary in 1918, during a time when the state had previously not supported a single women’s college.
In 1920, Munford became the first woman on the school’s board of visitors and throughout her life she advocated for accessible education for all.
“She’s a reminder, I think, that it is incumbent on all of us to carry forward that tradition of ambition for the long game,” said Katherine A. Rowe, president of the college.
The dedication of Munford Plaza came after a push from Munford’s great-grandson, Ben Munford.
Ben Munford was on campus one day in 2018 and passed by a building designated Munford Hall. The building seemed to be in a state of disarray and he was upset to see his great-grandmother’s legacy remembered in that way.
After writing a letter that eventually ended up in the hands of the college’s previous president, Taylor Reverley, the board of visitors took a look at the building and realized that he was right.
“The board of visitors took down the [Munford Hall] sign and decided to do better,” Barnard said.
And on Thursday, Ben Munford got his wish as he and his family watched the unveiling of the new plaque in the center of the campus dedicated to their relative.
“There is a clearly defined diamond within a square situated between Swem Library, Andrews Hall, the Integrated Science Center, Small Hall and Barksdale Field,” said John Littel, the college’s rector. “These were opportunities that she longed for as a young woman and fought for in her advocacy for co-education.”
This past year, William & Mary has been honoring 100 years of coeducation with a number of events and ceremonies. In the fall of 1918, 24 women entered the university and started a new era of education in Williamsburg.
“You hear from me a lot about standing on the soldiers of giants,” Rowe said. “And she is a powerful example of that.”