By Emma Campbell
On Feb. 1, 2021, the Washington College Provost Office announced the official launch of the Asterisk Initiative in a letter sent to students, parents, staff, and faculty via email.
The initiative is part of the larger WC History Project, whose “three-part mission is to study WC’s historical connection to enslavement and race-based discrimination, to acknowledge this history through public statements and actions, and to work for reconciliation and change in our campus culture in response to this historical legacy,” according to an email sent by Interim President Wayne Powell on Sept. 3, 2020.
The Asterisk Initiative aims to contextualize histories behind specific landmarks and buildings around the WC campus by labelling them with signs, which include QR codes directing visitors to the Asterisk website. There, visitors can read up on the background of these locations to gain a more complete understanding of their historical significance.
“In academic writing, the asterisk symbol is one that tells us to pause and look further, revealing essential context and subtext,” the letter — which was signed by Interim Provost and Dean of the College Michael Harvey and Vice President for Enrollment Management and Marketing Lorna Hunter — said. “The Asterisk Initiative literally makes history visible by placing asterisk-shaped markers on campus landmarks with deeper stories to tell.”
For example, an Asterisk sign in front of Smith Hall directs viewers to a webpage providing critical context relating to William Smith, the building’s namesake. Although Smith has been commemorated by WC for helping to establish its liberal arts model, he was also a slaveowner and a friend to many other slaveholders — out of the 356 original donors he canvassed to pay for the College charter, only 14 of them didn’t own slaves.
Before the Asterisk Initiative, critical context like this has been mostly disregarded by the WC community.
“The real appeal here was the invitation to thoughtfulness and consideration, and not to rash action or strong statements before considering the facts and understanding the complexity of a history,” WC Chief of Staff Victor Sensenig said. “An asterisk, to us, suggested ‘there’s more to this story. Take some time to understand and listen.’”
WC has been repeatedly put under pressure to acknowledge the racism that has historically been brushed aside. In the fall of 2019, “The Foreigner,” a senior thesis production which depicted cast members in Ku Klux Klan robes, was cancelled after backlash from students and faculty. On Feb. 21, 2020, students protested bias incidents at the College’s annual convocation ceremony, and a letter of grievances and demands to WC made by the Black Student Union was published in The Elm on March 19, 2020.
There are elements of WC’s history that are difficult to come to terms with. But, if the College had begun this process of reconciliation much earlier, it’s possible that the school’s environment would not have grown so contentious.
“This is not a one-and-done project for me,” senior and Student Government Association representative for the project Will Reid said. “I personally see this as an initiative that can be continually expanded and reworked. History is always being added to with new discoveries, so I have no doubt that as this project continues, we’ll unearth more aspects of the college and its past. Because we use Washington’s name, this is something that we will need to continually reinvigorate and investigate because this college’s history is so much more than the cis, straight, white men who founded it.”
With the College’s memorialization of historical icons like George Washington comes glaring hypocrisy. WC cannot claim to show inclusion to non-white students while at the same time failing to acknowledge that Washington was deeply prejudiced against persons of color. He was a slaveholder — his administration even oversaw the first barbaric implementation of the 1793 federal fugitive slave laws, which required all states to return Black runaways to their white masters.
“As for George Washington himself, our association with him is indelible; he’s part of our institutional DNA,” the letter said. “But we must strive for a more full and honest understanding of this complicated, exceptional, and flawed person: a slaveholder who personally grappled with the issue of slavery but did not compel our newly-formed nation to do so… It would be a mistake to revoke the legacies of Washington, Smith, and others who built this great college, as if both the good and the bad that they did had never happened. Only by facing our history head-on and learning from it can we move forward.”
In addition to discovering details about Washington and Smith’s racial prejudices, the Asterisk Initiative has also brought to light histories that may have otherwise been forgotten. Thomas Bowser, the College’s first African American employee, extinguished a fire that would have destroyed WC’s inaugural building. This courageous and inspiring act may have been buried had it not been for the Asterisk Initiative’s spotlight of Bowser.
“I think one of the really exciting [elements of the Asterisk Initiative] is the addition of all these untold stories, and all the positive stories of contributions of people that, up until recently, no one knew their names,” Kelly Wallace, WC director of public and media relations, said. “It started out as… ‘let’s sort of correct or reckon with the history of the known figures.’ But I really like that it’s evolved into an equal focus on ‘let’s find the stories that have never been told.”
“There’s a lot of history here that needs to be discovered,” Sensenig said. “Some of it is painful…some of it’s wonderful — stories of accomplishment and real joy.”
The Asterisk Initiative is perhaps the most self-aware step that WC has taken against racism in its centuries-long history. It recognizes both the active and complicit roles our institution has played in years of pain. Though it sounds simple, vocalizing this recognition is not easy, but it is necessary. The Asterisk Initiative has taken this vital step, and WC’s future generations will thank us for it.
WC’s Asterisk Initiative aims to provide context to the College’s complicated history, below. Shown in the featured photo, an Asterisk banner placed in front of Hodson Hall Commons directs visitors to the initiative’s official website. Photos by Ben Wang.