Sweet Briar History

The history of Sweet Briar College is complex and nuanced. The legacies of the Fletcher and Williams families, along with people of color, have been woven into the landscape for centuries.

Sweet Briar College is named for Indiana Fletcher Williams’ mother’s favorite species of rose. Her parents, Elijah and Marie Fletcher, operated a plantation called Sweetbrier between the 1830s and Elijah’s death in 1858. All told, the Fletcher family enslaved more than 140 individuals on the plantation. Indiana inherited the large farm after her father died and later she married an Irish preacher, James Henry Williams. Their only child, Daisy, died in 1884 at the age of 16. Devastated by their loss, Indiana and James Henry planned to establish a school in her honor and memory. When Indiana died in 1900, she bequeathed the plantation to become a school for young white women. The charter was granted in 1901 and the school opened its doors in 1906 with 51 students. The first degrees were awarded in 1910.

In the decades after its founding, Sweet Briar was run by a predominantly black labor force, performing most of the cleaning, washing, cooking, grounds-keeping, mowing, driving and delivering mail. They worked in every building and every rural field. They built Sweet Briar’s magnificent buildings, new lakes on campus, and helped construct pumps and dams for the newly created water supply. Between 1906 and 1960, more than 350 African Americans worked at Sweet Briar, and several dozen of them worked at the College for more than 30 years. 

In addition, several Monacan families worked on the farmland owned by the College, mimicking a tenant model of the postbellum era. Bowman Knuckles, who worked for decades as a gardener, maintained his identity as a Native American. On his draft card in 1917, and again in the 1920 census, he identified himself as “Indian,” an effort soon to be obliterated through Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 that insisted on classifying individuals as “white” or “colored,” without any mention of heritage. Another Monacan man, Winston Braham, at more than 60 years of age, was one of the oldest employees when the College was founded.