Washington College History Project launches the Asterisk Initiative to acknowledge “how we’ve fallen short in the past”

By Erica Quinones

News Editor

In its endeavor to acknowledge past failures and create a stronger institution in the future, the Washington College History Project launched the Asterisk Initiative on Jan. 22, asking students to pause and investigate the foundational stories of WC.

The History Project launched in September 2020 with the goal to engage “contemporary audiences in conversations about our past as a way to affect positive change in our present campus culture,” according to the WC History Project webpage.

As the WC History Project seeks to fulfil its goal through three steps — find, acknowledge, and reconcile — the Asterisk Initiative falls beneath the acknowledge branch, expanding the context in which WC tells its foundational stories. 

According to Interim Dean and Provost of the College Dr. Michael Harvey, the Asterisk Initiative sprang from the recognition that “we can no longer simply display statuary, artwork, names of buildings that are implicated in a history we haven’t yet acknowledged.”

“If we are going to be honest with what the History Group wants to do…there needed to be a way to point out that, here is a big statue of George Washington, but we are no longer simply holding him up as a figure of uncritical admiration,” Dr. Harvey said. 

The Initiative re-contextualizes important stories and figures in WC’s past by attaching plaques which feature red asterisks to different landmarks across campus. These plaques contain QR codes which lead visitors to the Asterisk Initiative webpage where they can read the fuller story of each spot.

Students may frequently pass the asterisk plaques attached to the bust of George Washington outside Hodson Hall, hung in Martha Washington Square, or attached to the doors of William Smith Hall, but others are located farther away in downtown Chestertown at the Custom House and Hynson-Ringgold House.

The asterisk draws attention to each landmark, denoting that there is more to the stories those landmarks represent. 

“The asterisk is really calling us to be better, to do better. Calling us to be honest about how we’ve fallen short in the past,” Dr. Harvey said.

By drawing attention to the stories represented by those spots, Dr. Harvey and Vice President for Enrollment Management and Marketing Dr. Lorna Hunter said the project will generate conversation and thought in onlookers.

“The whole idea of the asterisk is that there is more to this than meets the eye,” Dr. Hunter said. “Not to cover it up or take it down or act like it didn’t happen, because when you remove one history, you remove other pieces of that history that are other people’s history that still needs to be lived and explained and talked about and considered.” 

The asterisks currently expand on 10 aspects of WC’s history, complicating stories like that of the College’s founding.

A common tale across campus, the WC community is familiar with how Reverend and former President of the College William Smith convinced George Washington to donate 50 guineas in order to found the first college of the new United States on Maryland’s Eastern shore.

However, the Asterisk Initiative expands this story by including the enslaved people present throughout. 

George Washington and most of the founding funders enslaved people. Smith enslaved three people, one of whom attempted to escape enslavement twice. WC itself sold enslaved children.

However, the Asterisk Initiative does not only acknowledge moments of moral failure at the College but also figures to celebrate, such as Thomas E. Morris ’62 — the first Black student to graduate from WC — and Thomas Bowser — a free man of color and College employee who prevented a catastrophic fire in 1817.

While the project currently tells 10 stories, Drs. Hunter and Harvey said that it is an ongoing project, and they hope students will suggest new stories to expand upon.

Despite the asterisks having a visual presence across WC, the nature of an asterisk itself might denote a footnote, an addendum as opposed to the main story, continuing to relegate Black history to the outskirts of WC’s story.

However, Dr. Hunter said that denoting these stories with asterisks is important, because if they brought the histories together without acknowledging the parts which were originally omitted, people would assume it is the tale they already knew.

“It is a matter of pulling [the story] out, shining a light on it, making that visibility there that says, ‘No, this is not the story you know.’ Before we can conclude it, before we can reconcile, we have to acknowledge that this story exists, that it has been left out,” Dr. Hunter said.

Dr. Harvey agreed, saying that the asterisk might be the most important part of a text. 

“If you think about the official story, it is whatever whoever wrote the story wants you to read. The asterisk might be where the truth gets told,” Dr. Harvey said.

Drs. Harvey and Hunter both said they hope to hear student responses towards the Asterisk Initiative. Such an opportunity will occur on Feb. 15 at 5 p.m. when Drs. Harvey and Hunter will be joined by Director of the Starr Center for the Student of the American Experience Adam Goodheart for a forum regarding the Initiative. 

Students can sign up for the forum via a Zoom link in Dr. Harvey’s Jan. 22 email. The same email contains a form link to submit questions.

“I got a message from someone yesterday who said the announcement and the video made them cry, and they said this might be the most important work you ever do for the College, and I would be proud if that was true,” Dr. Harvey said. “I’m so proud of the work [the History Group] is doing. It doesn’t mean it is perfect…[but] it seems like what a College can be at its best.”

Featured Photo caption: A red asterisk sign stands at the front of the Customs House. Following its accompanying QR code informs visitors of the House’s history. Once owned by Thomas Ringgold IV, both an early leader in the American Independence movement and one of the most active participants in the slave trade on the Chesapeake Bay, the house “would surely tell grim tales of human bondage, terror, and suffering,” according to the Asterisk Initiative’s website. Photos by Marah Vain-Callahan.

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