Students honor Sweet Briar’s invisible founders

Slave Cemetery
Sweet Briar students and staff at the Slave Cemetery on April 28

At Sweet Briar, we talk a lot about Indiana Fletcher Williams and her role in founding the College. What we talk about less is that Indiana was born in 1828, a time when men, women and children in the American South labored in slavery. On the grounds of the plantation that would become Sweet Briar College, generations worked the land — both during the era of slavery and after its end.

Many of these unknown and invisible founders are buried on the Sweet Briar campus in a cemetery located on a slight rise above the school’s two lakes. The people buried there remain largely unknown, their head and foot stones unmarked with their names.

On the last weekend in April, Sweet Briar’s Black Student Alliance (BSA) planted rose bushes at the burial ground, the first step in what they hope will become a more thoughtful and conscious remembrance of these individuals who lived, labored and died on the land that has since become home to thousands of students.

Memorial at Slave Cemetery
The memorial at the Slave Cemetery

Dajhanara Jones ’20, the president of the BSA, says the club wanted to bring beauty to the space. “Sometimes we forget the invisible founders,” she went on. “As a club, we felt we needed to take a moment to honor them. Eventually, I’d love to see the space become a memorial garden and be part of the Founders’ Day activities.”

Planning the walk and remembrance wasn’t a simple process, but BSA vice president A’Shawnta Sherman ’18 is grateful for what they accomplished and thinks that larger recognition of these invisible founders can be part of the changes at Sweet Briar. “I believe in the new curriculum and the other changes the school is making,” she said. “The BSA is making changes, too, and making this an annual event is an opportunity to change how the community views the cemetery. I’d like people to feel like it’s an integral part of the campus.”

Nicole Whitehead, the College’s director of human resources and community engagement, serves as one of the BSA faculty and staff advisors. In describing the ceremony, she acknowledged the emotion it brought. “As we inched closer to the site,” she wrote, “emotions ran high for some women who began to reflect on the lives of the men and women resting in the cemetery. We wondered if these now invisible blessings knew that they were paving the way for each of us to be here … visible manifestations of the fruits of their labor. As we stomped through the red mud, a peace that surpassed understanding was in the air.”

Though these men and women are anonymous to us now, they are blessings to every member of the Sweet Briar community, having laid a foundation for the College that has itself become a blessing to thousands of alumnae.