At Virginia Seder, A Unique Flavor of Slavery
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At Virginia Seder, A Unique Flavor of Slavery

Historic university reinforces students’ understanding of Passover theme

Williamsburg, Va. — The students at the second-night seder here at the College of William and Mary this week didn’t have to go far for a reminder of slavery, one of the ritual meal’s main themes.

They just had to cross the street.

Across Jamestown Road on the eastern border of the second-oldest university in the United States lies the Wren Building, the oldest extant college building in the country. The three-story brick structure was built by slaves in the final years of the 17th century, and slaves worked there in subsequent years.

I mentioned the site during the seder I led for two dozen members of the school’s Hillel chapter.

Slavery is not an entirely abstract concept for them, as it is not for many of the participants in the seders I have led in the past dozen years, mostly in former communist countries. The people attending my seders, or their parents or grandparents, have memories of slavery conditions under Nazism and Communism.

For most young Jews in this country, slavery is foreign.

For the students at the William and Mary seder, most of whom are from Northern Virginia, tales of slavery are very familiar.

The school is home to the Lemon Project, an initiative that documents the role that slavery played on campus; and to the Middle Passage Project, which researches the slave trade that brought millions of black Africans across the Atlantic Ocean from the Old World to slavery in the New World.

At times during my seder, students discussed Harriet Tubman, the “Black Moses” conductor on the antebellum Underground Railroad who led Southern slaves to freedom in the North; they discussed the education about Southern slavery that began in their elementary schools; they discussed how the subject of slavery in the South inevitably would be mentioned during their family seders.

“Passover is a time of remembrance,” said Maia Mandel, president of the W&M Hillel chapter. A seder on a campus where slaves and slave owners — including a teenaged Thomas Jefferson — once walked was a “natural connection,” she said.

In the 19th century, William and Mary was known as the leading intellectual proponent of Southern causes, an unabashed supporter of slavery and of restrictive post-Civil War Jim Crow legislation and social practice. Thomas Roderick Dew, president of the school in 1836-46, “was considered the chief ideologue for the defense of slavery,” according to Jody Allen, a visiting assistant professor of history who serves as co-chair of the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation, which was established here six years ago.

The school, established in 1693 by King William III and Queen Mary II, did in its early days own at least dozens of slaves, cotton fields and a tobacco plantation where the slaves worked.

The Lemon Project (wm.edu/lemonproject), named for one of the school’s slaves (a worker in the school’s cotton fields who died in 1817; his last name is not known), grew out of student and faculty resolutions in 2009 that called for a full investigation of the college’s past. The school’s Board of Visitors (its trustees) acknowledged that the institution, which in early decades was affiliated with the Anglican and Episcopal churches, had “owned and exploited slave labor from its founding to the Civil War, and that it had failed to take a stand against segregation during the Jim Crow era.”

While William and Mary, now a public university with no religious affiliation, began admitting its first black students as early as 1951, several years ahead of many Southern institutions, blacks were not allowed to live on campus until 1967. In recent years the school has increased its recruiting of black students (an estimated 7 percent of the school’s 8,400 students) and faculty, and has created an African Studies Department.

The school also offers a Jewish Studies minor; some 500 Jewish students attend the school.

The Lemon Project supports oral histories of black alumni, as well as on-campus archaeological excavations that have uncovered the remains of an early 18th-century building that may have housed slaves who worked at the school; other archaeological research here is looking for evidence that one campus building was used for the education of free and enslaved black children in the 1700s.

The project is part of a recent movement among several prominent universities across the country — both in the South, and at such northern schools as Harvard, Yale, Brown and Columbia — that have made a belated effort to investigate and admit to the institutions’ support of slavery centuries ago.

Craig Steven Wilder, a history professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of “’Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities” (Bloomsbury, 2014), calls the Lemon Project “one of the earlier attempts to address the history of slavery at American colleges. Southern schools have been more active in these efforts than their northern peer institutions.

“This research, public programming, and campus dialogue creates the opportunity for colleges/universities to do outreach beyond their campuses to repair and improve their relationships with black and brown communities with whom they share histories,” Wilder, a first-generation college graduate (Fordham and Columbia) who grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, told The Jewish Week in an email interview.

While many African-Americans, descendants of slaves, continue to be reluctant to discuss the history and legacy of slavery, today more “eyes are being opened,” said Allen, a 2007 graduate of William and Mary (doctorate, history), who specializes in the post-Civil War Reconstruction era and school desegregation.

She has lobbied for the inclusion of the school’s past involvement with slavery in W&M’s history curriculum, and for the admissions office to include newly uncovered stories in prospective students’ tours of the campus.

Allen said The Lemon Project, a form of communal remembrance and repentance, shares parallels with the seder, which has kept the memory of ancient slavery alive for centuries in the Jewish community.

For the students at my seder, who came dressed in modest skirts and blouses, casual shirts and slacks, the connection was obvious.

I cited one recent connection: a column in the Chicago Tribune by a Jewish writer who declared that he had “no idea” how to make the experience of deliverance 3,300 years ago relevant at this year’s seder. Then he decided to join last month’s mass march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., marking the 50th anniversary of one of the seminal events in civil rights history.

The commemorative march, I said, was an American version of the seder — re-enacting in words and actions, steps that led to freedom.

The students at my seder understood.

Mounted at the front of Trinkle Hall, where the seder took place, was a royal coat-of-arms with the motto, in French, “God is my Right” — a fitting reminder at a seder; the ancient Pharaohs also believed that they ruled by appointment of the gods.

At the end of the seder, some of the students at my table discussed the similarities between the Jewish experience in ancient Egypt and the African experience in the antebellum United States.

“There was one big difference,” one young woman said. “We had an exodus.”

One more overlap of the two communities’ background in slavery: on Friday and Saturday this week, the last days of Passover, which commemorate the Israelites’ crossing the Red Sea, the Lemon Project will sponsor its annual spring symposium here. The theme: “Ghosts of Slavery.”

Staff writer Steve Lipman traveled to Williamsburg under the sponsorship of the College of William and Mary’s Hillel chapter. He led the second-night seder using supplies donated by Daniel Levine of J. Levine Books and Judaica, Chanan Furman of B2B Supply, and friends Lisa Levy, Shulamis Blokh, Debby Caplan, Michael and Rebecca Wittert and Simi Eisenstat.

steve@jewishweek.org

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