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Event at William & Mary to provide guests with slave dwelling experience

On March 19, The Lemon Project will host an event where guests can learn about the history of enslaved people at William & Mary and stay overnight in a building constructed and occupied by slaves. (WYDaily/File photo)
On March 19, The Lemon Project will host an event where guests can learn about the history of enslaved people at William & Mary and stay overnight in a building constructed and occupied by slaves. (WYDaily/File photo)

The Lemon Project at William & Mary will kick off its 10th annual spring symposium with an overnight stay in a building formerly occupied by slaves.

Students, staff and guests can participate in an event March 19 that sparks a conversation about the history and legacy of enslaved people at William & Mary. It will start with a dinner and campfire near the Wren Building on the college’s campus and eventually offer participants the opportunity to stay in the building overnight as part of an experience with The Slave Dwelling Project.

The Slave Dwelling Project is an organization headed by Joe McGill that takes members of a community to conduct overnight stays at sites associated with slavery, according to the project’s website. 

McGill said he started the project 10 years ago after his first sleepover at the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in South Carolina. 

“I would often visit these [historic] places and notice that information was disseminated about the [slave owners] and not the enslaved,” he said. “It was upsetting because I wanted to hear about my ancestors who I know played major roles in the existence of those places.”

RELATED STORY: Lemon Project’s 10th annual symposium to focus on black women in America

From that point on, McGill said he realized the project was much bigger than he had originally thought and found himself staying in locations all over the mid-Atlantic. 

McGill and participants will take part in a campfire conversation that focuses on enslaved women, which is the theme for this year’s spring symposium, and an overnight stay at the Wren Building.

The Wren Building has a history entwined with the college’s complex association with slavery. For many years, enslaved people lived and worked alongside staff professors and students in the structure, said Sarah Thomas, program manager for the Lemon Project, in an email.

“This is a somber event as we remember and honor the African Americans who were enslaved by and labored at William & Mary from 1693 to 1865,” Thomas said.

The Wren Building was constructed between 1695 and 1700 and was known as “the College main building” until it was renamed in 1931 after English architect Sir Christopher Wren, according to the William & Mary website.

Today, the structure continues to be used as an academic building for staff offices and classrooms, but that doesn’t erase the building’s past.

McGill said he has hosted overnight stays at multiple academic institutions in the past decade in order to help educate how many of these institutions owe their existence to enslaved people.

“Institutions have to be more forthcoming with their history of enslaved people,” he said. “We have to keep that past in mind as we celebrate these institutions.”

McGill commended William & Mary for not only acknowledging its history with slavery but also for supporting research into that uncomfortable topic.

RELATED STORY: William & Mary apologizes for college’s history of slavery, discrimination

The college issued a public apology in 2018 to the community that addressed its participation in slavery and also stated its continuing support to the Lemon Project. William & Mary also recently announced plans for a memorial to honor African Americans who were enslaved by the institution and that it would host Williamsburg’s first Juneteenth celebration.

“What I’ve learned is there are a lot of locations of higher learning that still refuse to acknowledge the institution of slavery,” he said. “But not William & Mary.”

The event will begin with a dinner at 5:30 p.m. located near the Wren Building, followed by a campfire discussion at 6:30 p.m. Registration to attend is online.

The overnight stay has currently reached capacity, but those interested can also sign-up for the event’s wait-list online.

For more information on the 10th annual Spring Symposium, visit the Lemon Project online.

The Slave Dwelling Project will also host its annual conference in October at Clemson University in South Carolina. For more information, visit The Slave Dwelling Project online.

Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doironhttp://wydaily.com
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at alexa@localvoicemedia.com.

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