College history shines in SBC professors’ new book

"Sweet Briar College" by Lynn Rainville and Lisa Johnston

A book signing and talk by research professor and director of the Tusculum Institute Lynn Rainville will celebrate the release of “Sweet Briar College,” a book she co-wrote with former SBC librarian Lisa Johnston. The event takes place at 4 p.m. Monday, Dec. 7, at the Book Shop and is free and open to the public.

Part of Arcadia Publishing’s Campus History Series, “Sweet Briar College” is a photographic account of the College’s dynamic history, from its plantation days in the 1800s to its founding as an educational institution in 1901 to the present day. Most of the 200 black-and-white images are from the Sweet Briar College archives, which are housed in Mary Helen Cochran Library, and many have never been published, Rainville says.

She also notes that it is the only book to cover Sweet Briar’s entire history — beginning with its plantation era and Indiana and James Henry Williams’ desire to found a college in honor of their daughter, Maria Georgiana “Daisy” Williams, who died tragically in 1884 at age 16, and ending with the appointment of President Phillip P. Stone in 2015.

Copies are $24.99 and will be available at the book signing and at area bookstores, as well as online. A portion of the profits will be donated to Sweet Briar College “to ensure another 115 years of educating women,” says Rainville, who also vows to donate unrestricted funds to the College. Johnston will be donating her royalties to the library.

While plans for this book had been in the making for many years, it was the March 3 announcement of Sweet Briar’s impending closure that forced the authors to complete the project in just a few months.

“I wanted to do something to promote Sweet Briar’s unique history and to ensure that if, God forbid, it closed, that people would be interested in preserving her history, both physical — historic buildings, photographs and artifacts — and immaterial — stories and traditions,” said Rainville, who began teaching anthropology and archaeology at Sweet Briar in 2001.

Lynn Rainville has taught at Sweet Briar for 14 years.
Lynn Rainville has taught at Sweet Briar for 14 years.

“So I reached out to Arcadia in early April and wrote a book proposal in record time.”

Rainville has lived in Virginia for 15 years. In 2008, she was appointed the founding director of the Tusculum Institute for Local History and Historic Preservation at the College.

Her research has included a study of Monument Hill and the slave cemetery, as well as other archaeological sites and artifacts on Sweet Briar’s 3,250 acres.

Her specialty is pre-World War II history, so when Rainville began piecing together the College’s more recent past, she realized that she needed help — and she knew just the person to ask.

“I turned to the unofficial keeper of Sweet Briar’s archives for the past two decades, Lisa Johnston. I asked her if she’d be willing to write the two ‘modern’ chapters.”

Johnston — who had for many years been the course librarian for the popular class Doing Sweet Briar History — said yes.

By the time Rainville’s proposal was approved, it was April 30.

“We still thought that June 30 would be our last day of employment with access to the photographs, [so] we pledged to write the almost 18,000-word book in under five weeks and turn in a final, edited copy by June 23,” Rainville said.

“This included the best part: spending countless hours in the archives, culling through rarely seen photographs. That was my favorite part.”

Johnston agrees, describing the research as a “magical” experience.

“Through the archives collection of photographs, this publication documents the history of educating 114 years of Sweet Briar women, and at the same time, captures the culture of a Southern women’s college,” she said.

Johnston, who ended up taking a job as director of library services at Eckerd College in Florida earlier this summer, had been there for a sizable chunk of Sweet Briar’s recent history: more than 26 years.

The book was finished just days after a court settlement was reached to keep Sweet Briar open. Rainville hopes it will remind supporters of the school’s unique history, and of what they were fighting to preserve.

For more information about the event, please email lrainville@sbc.edu.