Founders’ Day walk to the Sweet Briar Plantation Burial Grounds

Posted on October 08, 2020 by Abby May

(Left to right) Rae Rae Dillon ’23, Ingrid Kalwitz Blanco ’23 and Colleen Goodly ’23

What’s usually a Founders’ Day event, this year’s walk to the Sweet Briar Plantation Burial Grounds contended with mother nature a few times before finally, on Oct. 2, students, faculty and staff could make their way across the Upper Lake dam and up the hill to the cemetery. It was a beautiful evening for thoughtful reflection and observance of the slaves that worked on the Sweet Briar land before the College came to life.

History professor Dwana Waugh led the group to the burial grounds. “On this walk, we reflected on the hands that helped to build and sustain Sweet Briar with their labor,” she said. “The cemetery, which until more recently, has remained part of the College’s hidden history, is now more visible. This walk represents a way to acknowledge those who would have been excluded from campus life for much of Sweet Briar’s earliest years. By paying our due respects, their presence is more apparent and deeply connected to the story of Sweet Briar College. Remembering and honoring the important contributions of the enslaved community to this College is paramount to embracing a more diverse and inclusive community on campus.”

Echoing Dwana’s message, here are students’ eloquent thoughts on the importance of this event:

Dwana Waugh (right) leads the community down Boathouse Rd. towards.

Bijou Barry ’23

“At Sweet Briar, we pose a very critical question: What does it mean to be a consequential citizen? More importantly, what does it mean to be a part of a community? The walk to the slave cemetery is a commemoration of the black women and men whose lives, stories and histories are woven intricately in the landscape of our campus and the thread of who we are as a community and as a College. The sun setting over the rolling mountains and the cool breeze that swept through the air provided the serenity necessary to ponder on the meaning of honor, of acknowledgment and a culture of truth. 

The walk to the slave cemetery this year was very profound and paramount. It was a time and space of reckoning. It was the conscious recognition that for what many have called home, for others, was a briar patch of broken promises. The walk commemorated a time for us to unbow our heads and ask ourselves a very important question: What will we do next?”

Crossing the dam at the Upper Lake.

Ingrid Kalwitz Blanco ’23

“The walk to the enslaved people’s cemetery is a crucial tradition to have at Sweet Briar. Recognizing who our forgotten founders are is the first step in a series of actions that we need to take in the process of being truthful to our past. As students who know of the history of Sweet Briar, we need to push for the correct recognition of the cemetery. I can’t wait to see an increase in student involvement…We have a unique space in our own backyard, and we should honor it rightfully.” 

Rae Rae Dillon ’23

“For me, walking up to the slave cemetery invoked all types of emotions for me. I was excited to see such a large group come to commemorate the legacy of the slaves even though it was pushed back a few times due to weather…In this moment, I realized that the walk was just the first step to acknowledging this land was once a plantation. We have a long journey ahead before we can truly accept our history, the good and the bad.”

Colleen Goodly ’23

“I was so glad to see the turn out of the walk, even after all the rescheduling! I hope events like this continue to gain attention and attendance increases, helping us in the process of growing together. I think we need to do a lot more in appreciating and respecting the cemetery for all the history it holds. The first step in that is the upkeep of the grounds and making its existence more known and displayed, as well as making it a core aspect when talking about the campus on tours, with prospective students, etc. The stories of the people buried here are just as important as the founding family’s and should be held to the same high esteem. Sweet Briar has a ton of history; we can’t just overlook the parts we don’t like.”

A memorial plaque marks the Sweet Briar Plantation Burial Grounds.