By Piper Sartison
Elm Staff Writer
After the Asterisk Initiative’s January 2021 launch, the Washington College History Project Acknowledge Group held a student forum on Feb. 15 to gauge student opinions on what the Asterisk Initiative can do next in order to build a more unified community.
“The WC history project is drawn from a legacy of so many people here at the College,” Dr. Elena Deanda, director of the Black studies program, said. “We need to acknowledge the past trauma and we must learn; we are doing this for our alumni and our students.”
The forum, attended by few students, began with a presentation on the Asterisk Initiative and some of the stories they featured.
The Washington College Asterisk Initiative, which launched in January 2021, addresses past racial injustices that occurred in the WC community.
The initiative addresses these past racial injustices by contextualizing figures from WC’s history through asterisk signs which are placed at strategic locations. These signs lead visitors to revised histories which integrate the stories of African Americans with the original stories told.
“There is a lot of other history, some of it a good deal more negative, that is part of our institution. This history has really in a sense been hidden in plain sight,” Director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience Adam Goodheart said.
This history included an analysis of the “A View of Chestertown From White House Farm” painting, which hung in Bunting Hall until October 2019.
The portrait was created in 1795 for Simon Wilmer, a local slaveholder. It depicts him on a horse with the original WC building in the right background. To the left. a group of enslaved people are working.
Goodheart said the painting captured the truth of how WC’s founding funds were attained, “from the stolen labor of people of African descent.”
Goodheart not only emphasized how the painting recontextualized the relationship between wealth, power, enslavement, and the College, but how the portrait’s story shows the role of students in prompting change on campus.
“A View of Chestertown” was relocated to the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience through the efforts of students who petitioned the College to reconsider the painting’s messaging in its place in Bunting.
“So much of uncovering and acknowledging this history has happened because of students. Students have taken the lead at WC for many years,” Goodheart said.
Following the presentation, the panel opened the mic to attending students to ask questions and voice suggestions.
Concerns arose around topics such as fiscally supporting students of color, attaching the institution firmly to figures like George Washington, engaging students, and celebrating positive forces for change at the College.
Attendees discussed the potential for garnering support from donors to further fund scholarships for students of color, such as the Vincent Hynson ’87 Scholarship.
While recruitment and support of students of color was an important topic, there was also concern raised around the lack of critical perspectives surrounding controversial figures like George Washington.
The annual Birthday Ball was invoked as an example of the College intertwining its identity as an institution with its namesake, a slaveholder who made his profit from stolen labor and freed his slaves postmortem.
“We can have a celebration of who we are as an institution without being attached to [George Washington’s] birth,” Dr. Deanda said.
Rather than honoring only figures from the distant past, it was suggested the College uplift and acknowledge the efforts of contemporary student activists and leaders, such as Jocelyn Elmore ’20 and Paris Mercier ’20, both of whom were student leaders in the spring 2020 student protests.
“Our history is not only about slavery and Civil Rights. We can honor the leaders on campus who really strive to bring a level of social justice here. Everything they do on campus is appreciated,” junior Paris Young said.
Goodheart suggested creating an award for social justice at Commencement. While there is an award for diversity, the focus on advocacy acknowledges active leadership.
Beyond honoring alumni for their advocacy at the College, there was also discussion of engaging current students in the initiative.
The first step towards that engagement may be education. Dr. Deanda said that educating all students on the Asterisk Initiative would “get [all of us] the same basis of who we are as an institution, and not just a few get to know and the rest can live in the shadows.”
While the forum served as a setting to pitch ideas for progress, it also reinsured a safe space striving towards constant improvement for students at WC.
“We do it for you [students], but we also do it for ourselves [staff and faculty], because when we feel that we belong, when we feel that we are safe and cherished, when we feel we are acknowledged and heard, we are able to excel,” Dr. Deanda said.
Featured Photo caption: The Asterisk Initiative student forum was hosted to discuss new paths to racial equality at Washington College with students, staff, and faculty. Photo by Sammy Jarrett.