Founder’s Day

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So, Founder’s Day was Friday.

It seems a little strange to celebrate and mourn the college’s founder at the same time. The people here are incredibly aware of their history here — the story of the college’s founder, Indiana Fletcher Williams, whose daughter Daisy and husband John Williams both died of some disease I can never remember the name of. (It was a genetic disease.) When Indiana died, too, she left what was then Sweet Briar Plantation to a board of trustees to turn the plantation into a college for women. And apparently, in her will, she specified that everyone must commemorate her dead daughter, for some reason.

So we do. Every year, apparently. We march up to Monument Hill, where the three bodies are buried, and we read the Lord’s Prayer, and bits from Isiah and Psalms, and sing Amazing Grace. And then everyone places a daisy on Daisy’s grave. I wish I had thought to bring my camera, but you’ll have to be content with the picture above.

It’s a long walk up to Monument Hill. Very long. My legs were beyond sore by the time I got up there; and I was one of the very last ones who made it back to the main part of campus. And on Friday, the sun had been bright and hot; more so for me, because my hair goes almost down to my waist and it ends up sticking to the back of my head and weighing me down.

A huge monument stands up there, at the top of Monument Hill. I suppose that’s where it gets its name. An angel stands at the top of a huge stone plinth, high above, so high I had to crane my head back to see it. On its base was inscribed the names of the founder’s family — of Elijah Fletcher, Indiana’s father; of Indiana herself, and Daisy. A separate gravestone stood at the foot of the monument, which read Daisy’s name. It’s on this smaller gravestone that everyone heaped a pile of daisies, so many it came up mid-thigh when I stood next to it.

And all of this was really lovely. But it’s not really what I focused on. At the beginning of the ceremony, they mentioned the slave burial plot, because this used to be a plantation. It’s in the South. There are over 60 slaves buried here, all with unmarked gravestones. It stands at the opposite end of campus from Monument Hill. And they mention placing a bouquet of daisies there, too, and a private moment of silence, but the entire campus was not invited to place daisies on one of their gravestones.

I don’t think Sweet Briar College is racist, or that it forgets or glosses over its past. Everyone here — especially my Honors Inquiry professor, who’s spent the past 14 years researching the history of this college — brings up the past again and again. They tell us over and over that diversity is great, that they know this used to be a plantation — that’s all the more reason to be respectful to everyone. But I wish we had a school-wide tradition of honoring those men and women in the slave burial plot, too, even if it’s not mentioned in Indiana Fletcher Williams’s will.

I think I may visit there, in the next week. I want to see that cemetery for myself, and honor it in my own way. They don’t get as much love as the founders of the college. They have their own section in the Sweet Briar Museum — a slave cabin still stands near the slave cemetery — but these are more niche things. People who like studying history/archaeology/African American studies visit the museum and the cemetery. Women interested in the past. But not all of the women studying engineering or English or psychology go down to these places.

There should be some lesson here to draw from, some storybook moral. But there’s not, really. It’s just life. People promote the understanding of the past, of honoring the dead, and it gets applied unevenly across the campus. The founders get priority. The slaves, who worked the land, get some remembrance.

There’s no active, vicious prejudice against them — they just sort of get left behind, in the discussion of the founding of the college. They, after all, did not come up with the idea to turn this place into a college. In fact, no one will likely ever know their opinions of what should have happened to the grounds they worked. They suffered something awful in life, and their graves stand unmarked in death — but I don’t think anyone on this campus will let them lie un-remembered.

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