By Sophie Foster
On Feb. 1, 2021, Washington College announced the Asterisk Initiative, a project that would endeavor to encourage members of the campus community to pause, think deeper, and consider the context of the school’s history.
According to the College’s website, this initiative was constructed by the WC History Project — a group of several faculty, staff, students, board members, alumni, and community members — to acknowledge this institution’s historic ties to slaveholders by indicating sites that feature them.
Presently, there are eight locations marked with an asterisk around campus: the George Washington statue at the edge of the Hill Dorms, the George Washington bust at the front of Hodson Hall, the George. Washington signature in front of the Casey Academic Center, William Smith Hall, Martha Washington Square, the Custom House, Hynson-Ringgold House, and the William Smith portrait that hangs in Bunting Hall.
Today, WC works to keep the initiative at the forefront of students’ minds when engaging in dialogue about the College’s history.
In an April 13 email, President of the College Dr. Mike Sosulski invited “those who feel passionately about the topic to work in partnership with the rest of the community in seeking productive, meaningful avenues for this type of conversation,” noting that WC faculty and staff would be taking part in diversity, equity, and inclusion training.
This email came in response to a Public Safety Alert that the vandalism included “inflammatory” language describing a suspect in a nearby shooting, as well as an incident in which the George Washington statue was vandalized in an apparent effort to acknowledge “this historical figure’s own complicated history and his elevated status at the College.”
“We were founded by people who made their wealth from exploiting and enslaving others,” Provost and Dean Dr. Michael Harvey said, explaining that the Asterisk Initiative is a way of making dormant information visible.
According to Dr. Harvey, if such sites remain on campus but are recontextualized, it provides the opportunity to interrogate the life of the figure portrayed, consider the injustices they partook in, and potentially reject the years spent celebrating them.
Dr. Harvey pinpoints three commitments of the initiative: find, acknowledge, and reconcile.
First, the past needs to be confronted honestly; next, the truth needs to be shared; and the lived experiences of students of color need to be realized and overcome in order to establish an inclusive campus community.
For some WC community members, these notions of truth and honesty feel distant.
According to freshman MacKenzie MacDonald, she never heard of the Asterisk Initiative, noting that “this school [isn’t great] at telling us things.”
Meanwhile, according to junior Dasha Shirokova, she had more of an overarching knowledge of the project. She said that she knew this program worked on “exploring the history of the United States, including the darker parts like slavery and race discrimination…[and working] on recognizing those parts of the history and learning from them.”
The College is discussing ways the importance of the Asterisk Initiative can be highlighted going forward, according to the Student Government Association’s Senate minutes from April 5.
In the meantime, Dr. Sosulski encourages everyone to visit the Asterisk Initiative’s page on the WC website, https://www.washcoll.edu/campus-community/asterisk-initiative.
Photo by Jon Kelly
Featured Photo Caption: Beginning in the spring 2021 semester, Washington College, through the Asterisk Initiative, sought to further acknowledge and discuss the history of the campus via signs (above).