The Confederate flag, a college mace and becoming America again
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Writing in The Hill earlier this summer with Michael Sainato, I expressed hopes that the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina State House might, in the words of Langston Hughes, "Let America be America again." I remember wondering, as I wrote those words, whether there would be consequences to me as a black scholar teaching at a public university in the South, but ultimately my conscience won out and I clicked "send."


Last Friday, the College of William & Mary, where I teach, the second-oldest university in the United States, made a bold and historic move. Founded in 1693, this "public Ivy" has been called the "alma mater of a nation" and "the mother of presidents." Simply put, the fact is that William & Mary, as the most august of Southern universities and the one closest to Jamestown, Va., where freedom and slavery were first defined in colonial America, is in the nation's DNA, and has been for the past 300 years. It continues to play a role in shaping the nation's consciousness, and what William & Mary does matters.

On Aug. 14, "the College" — as we affectionately call her — made what might be called a "course correction," an act symbolic in nature but real in its implications. President Taylor Reveley announced that the university would remove the "commemorative plaque in the Wren Building (naming soldiers from William & Mary who fought for the Confederacy)" and also that it would remove from "the College Mace (a gift of alumni, students and faculty in 1923, carried in university ceremonies)" the likeness of the Confederate flag. "We want to be a place that is welcoming to everyone who is part of our university's life. We are also an institution deeply rooted in history and committed to understanding our part in it. ... The Confederate battle flag and seal will be replaced on the mace before it returns to ceremonial use. Though the new emblems have yet to be determined, they will reflect the College’s history, including the Civil War," Reveley said. "We do not seek to put William & Mary's part in the Civil War out of sight or mind." The university posted the president's letter and a website outlining the background of the Confederate plaque and the mace. The plaque has been moved to the special collections section of the university's library, where it will be kept with other artifacts; it will be replaced with a new one, minus the Confederate battle flag, a plaque that provides a complete history of William & Mary people who fought in the Civil War.

I am obviously invested in these events, which I regard not as ends in themselves, but as a sign of shared movement in the right direction.

As the "mother of presidents," William & Mary has a very complicated relationship not only with the Civil War, but with the institution of chattel slavery and it is an institution trying to reconcile with its past and to move forward. The Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation, directed by William & Mary History Professor Jody Allen, attempts to address not only "William & Mary's role in the nation's founding," but also "the College's role in perpetuating slavery and racial discrimination," whereas the Middle Passage Project, which I direct, "serves to explore the history and memory surrounding the transatlantic slave trade, its resounding effects on Africans in the Americas, and its representation in literature and the humanities" more broadly. Both the Lemon Project and the Middle Passage Project look forward to the establishment of some form of memorial to those Africans who helped build the College. None exists at present.

However, public leadership in Friday's actions came from the president of the university, the board of visitors and its rector, Todd Stottlemyer. To my eye, these events suggest the possibility of a larger paradigm shift. I asked Brian Whitson, of William & Mary University Relations, about the timing of these actions, and the role of current events.

He responded:

For decades, students have marched under the Confederate battle flag image on the mace as they processed during ceremonies. Each entering class has passed by the Confederate battle flag image on the Confederate plaque as they walked through the Wren Building during Convocation. Each graduating class walked past the Confederate plaque as they began their final walk across campus at Commencement. When you consider both the offensive nature and exclusivity of the Confederate battle flag and the opportunity to provide a more complete history of [William & Mary's] role in the Civil War, it became increasingly clear this was the right decision — and the right time to act.

Teaching is my deepest calling. It is an honor to teach at the College of William & Mary. For years, I have taught my students the voices of African America under the shadow of the Confederate battle flag. Racism still exists. Are we, in the South, and at this great university, in the midst of an authentic transformation? How might our teaching and learning shift? What is the work that remains to be done? What might we hope to share for the common well-being of our community, of other universities and for the public good? The answers to these questions will be revealed as we move forward. One thing is sure, though. The eyes of the nation will be upon us.

Braxton, Ph.D. is the Frances L. and Edwin L. Cummings Professor of the Humanities and director of the Africana Studies Program Middle Passage Project at the College of William & Mary.