“Facts of the Matter” – Diversity at Sweet Briar

Posted on June 09, 2020 by Meredith Woo

Dear members of the Sweet Briar community,

In response to the requests by our students and recent alumnae, I write to let you know that I have formed the Presidential Working Group on Diversity and Inclusion. There are a number of groups already on campus, comprised of both students and faculty/staff, that focus on diversity, inclusiveness and equity. However, the sense of urgency in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd is such that I felt we needed to form a group that reports directly to me.

The group will assess the condition of racial relations, diversity and equity at Sweet Briar. It will make recommendations to me about the best practices to bring the most diverse talents possible to campus – and for welcoming and helping them to thrive here. It will also monitor progress, so that our efforts are not done in fits and starts or merely serve the expediency of the moment.

The following members of our community have agreed to serve: Kimberly Morse-Jones, associate professor of visual arts; Dwana Waugh, assistant professor of history; Beth Daniel-Lindsay, associate director of the library; Phillip Williamson, riding instructor and assistant IHSA coach; and Gloria Smith, senior administrative assistant for student life. Jodi Canfield, athletics director, will serve as liaison to student groups so that the flow of information between this group and our student groups will remain two-way, seamless and timely.

The starting point of the discussion is the list of requests presented by our students and recent alumnae. The student requests are extensive, covering our practices in faculty hiring and retention; course offerings including those in the core curriculum; diversity in athletics; representation of minority students in the College’s marketing materials; a diversity statement and training, and more.

The list includes tangibles such as an action plan that facilitates conversation, as well as intangibles such as our campus climate and fostering a greater “sense of belonging.” The recent alumnae also mention the necessity of eliminating micro-aggressions and outright aggression in the student community, through suspension and perhaps expulsion.

Reverberating through these requests is the need to know, especially about Sweet Briar College’s early history when African-American families, many of whom were formerly enslaved, transformed a plantation into a college. Fortunately, we have a comprehensive and scholarly account of this history entitled Invisible Founders, published last year by Berghahn Books. It is by Lynn Rainville, former dean of the College, who did much to research our material history.

I urge you to read this important work, which is freely available to all members of our community as a downloadable e-book through the library. Invisible Founders traces the generations of African-American families associated with the Sweet Briar plantation and later with the College, telling their stories and crediting their accomplishments. It is also one of the few histories available that examines the connections between slavery and the founding of a college in America.

In the decades after its founding, Sweet Briar was run by a predominantly black labor force, performing most of the cleaning, washing, cooking, grounds-keeping, mowing, driving and delivering mail. They worked in every building and every rural field. They built Sweet Briar’s magnificent buildings, new lakes on campus, and helped construct pumps and dams for the newly created water supply. Between 1906 and 1960, more than 350 African Americans worked at Sweet Briar, and several dozen of them worked at the College for more than thirty years. Yet none was promoted beyond the level of an hourly wage earner, according to Dr. Rainville.

Several Monacan families also worked on the farmland owned by the College, mimicking a tenant model of the postbellum era. Bowman Knuckles, who worked for decades as a gardener, maintained his identity as a Native American. On his draft card in 1917, and again in the 1920 census, he identified himself as “Indian,” an effort soon to be obliterated through Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 that insisted on classifying individuals as “white” or “colored,” without any mention of heritage. Another Monacan man, Winston Braham, at more than sixty years of age, was one of the oldest employees when the College was founded.

Many aspects of Sweet Briar’s history are painful and complex. Finally, one hundred years after its founding, the College began to acknowledge officially this past. “The facts of the matter,” said our former President Betsy Muhlenfeld in 2003, are that while the African Americans at Sweet Briar “did not choose so to labor … they stand nonetheless as the college’s co-founders.” One of the first American college presidents to acknowledge the slave origins of many American colleges, she went on to say that “we will no longer pretend that Sweet Briar has always been a refined institution of higher learning.” I pledge to you today that we will continue the work to confront our past; we will learn from it, and use it to inform what we do.

“We need diversity – now,” said Bijou Barry ’23 to me last week. She is a member of the student group on diversity and inclusiveness, and author of many of the requests that were delivered to my office. With an extraordinary eloquence, she argued that diversity was critical for understanding truths of lived experiences, and knowing what it means to be truly humane in our divided society.

The first meeting of this group will convene this week. I will look forward to updating you regularly on the progress of our important work.

Meredith Woo