A new student petition has surfaced at William & Mary protesting the funding of a plantation formerly owned by James Monroe, fifth president of the United States.
A list of auxiliary expenses in William & Mary’s 2020 budget includes more than $1 million in spending for James Monroe’s Highland. Auxiliary services are not funded from the state and rely on revenue from student and user fees, according to documents from the college.
But some students don’t understand why the university is funding a former plantation in Albemarle County that operates at nearly a $500,000 loss each year, according to college documents.
Salimata Sanfo, a student at William & Mary, started drawing attention to the issue with an online petition to stop funding the plantation. As of Tuesday, the petition has 891 out of 1,000 signatures.
“It’s interesting to see where our school is choosing to put their money at this time,” Sanfo said. “Actions speak louder than words.”
Sanfo said she met with W&M President Katherine Rowe and asked a member of the Board of Visitors about the funding, but the response was not “completely solid.”
Part of the issue is the plantation is operating as an event venue.
The location is advertised on Highland’s website as a wedding venue with spacious grounds near the plantation’s garden.
A portion of the location’s website addresses the slavery that took place at the plantation for generations.
“Enslaved women and men lived on the property for several generations, and had deeper connections to this place than did Monroe, who was often away in public office,” according to the website. It also addresses the “contradiction” between Monroe’s personal practices of owning slaves and his political actions that called for the abolition of slavery.
The website continues to address the history of slavery at Highland and states the location intends to represent a “multivocal” history that combines voices of various backgrounds.
The location also offers multiple historic tours at the property, including a “drop-in program” that discusses slavery at Highland that is only offered from April through October on certain days.
Sanfo said the descriptions on the location’s website only show it is “sugar-coating” the existence of slavery and exists to glorify Monroe and “make money off of a legacy built on oppression.”
Sanfo also argues it is inappropriate to keep the venue open for events.
“Of course, having a plantation is bad, but what struck me was it was still used as a wedding and event venue,” Sanfo said. “You can’t simultaneously push a wedding venue and push what happened to black Americans on that plantation.”
Those who signed the petition expressed frustration that money from the college is going to an institution involved with slavery.
Sanfo said she has tried contacting Highland to speak about the situation but has not yet received a response, and the school needs to be more transparent with students about where certain aspects of the budget are being spent.
“There’s outrage, anger, confusion and shock because a lot of people didn’t know this was happening,” she said. “And the part I’m still trying to understand is, what’s the benefit?”
Representatives from Highland were not immediately available for comment.
William & Mary’s response
WYDaily asked Suzanne Clavet, spokeswoman for the College of William & Mary, why money was going toward the plantation — less than a quarter of 1 percent of the university’s operating budget.
She said the college doesn’t fund all of the Highland’s expenses; the plantation earns money as a historic site and museum.
Clavet said in fiscal year 2020, the university gave $604,498.50 to Highland, which was less than a quarter of the college’s budget: $432.1 million.
“As an institution of higher education, William & Mary’s role in dealing with complex topics is to accelerate dialogue and help build a fuller, more accurate history of not only the university’s own past but also broader history,” she wrote in an email Monday. “The Lemon Project is part of these efforts as is the work of Highland.”
Clavet said the college supports Highland because it sees “great value” in sharing the plantation’s history and engages communities that have been negatively impacted by it.
In fact, the college received a grant from the Mellon Foundation for its “efforts at Highland” and the plantation is part of a movement to deal with “complex histories,” Clavet added.
“This work on inclusive history with shared authority for the site’s exhibits and spoken interpretation aligns with the core mission of the university,” Clavet wrote.
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