Founders’ Day 2019 was all about Sweet Briar’s land.
The day began with a reflective moment in a quiet corner of that land: the Sweet Briar Plantation Burial Grounds. When the sunrise walk to the burial grounds began, the air was cool and crisp, with a hint of fall. A blanket of mist covered Upper Lake as the walkers passed. The path seemed to disappear into the trees, but a little farther down, the group of about 50 — students, faculty, staff and members of the Amherst community — stopped in a clearing with a stone marking the resting place of the unknown founders of Sweet Briar College.
Members of the Black Student Alliance planned the event, which has become an annual part of Founders’ Day. The ceremony began with a prayer by the Rev. Jasper Fletcher, a descendant of the slaves who worked the land here. His great-great-grandmother was an enslaved woman who had worked as a nurse in the house. He reminded the gathering that the graves are unmarked because slaves were not allowed to write.
His words were a moving reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. The student leaders of the BSA read from the Bible and from writings by Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and Toni Morrison. Lilies were laid on the stone and those in attendance ended the ceremony by walking around the cemetery and contemplating the lives of the people buried there.
This year, Founders’ Day included a visit by some special guests, including U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, U.S. Senator Mark Warner, Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring, and Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Jewel Bronaugh. The group was on hand to speak to area farmers about issues relating to agriculture, tour the College’s newest agricultural enterprises and to ceremonially open Sweet Briar’s new greenhouse.
Following the ribbon-cutting, the campus community gathered in Murchison Lane Auditorium, where the theme of stewarding the land infused the traditional observances of Founders’ Day. Aaron Van Allen, who works for Congressman Ben Cline, was first to speak. “I congratulate you on returning to the roots of Sweet Briar College, and for your efforts to grow and build an agricultural juggernaut in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Van Allen said on behalf of Cline. “Our community, commonwealth and the nation need more women farmers equipped with academic knowledge and practical learning, which is available to students on this extraordinarily beautiful campus. Simply put, the world and the agricultural community need Sweet Briar women and the leadership that they offer.”
Next, Sally Mott Freeman ’76 spoke on behalf of the Sweet Briar Board of Directors. “[President Woo’s] reinvigoration of the mission of our founder, Indiana Fletcher Williams — in addition to the education of dynamic, young women of consequence — included the sustainable, revenue-generating stewardship of these sprawling grounds,” Freeman noted. “As a former USDA official myself, and a current Virginia farmer, I could not be prouder of these unique partnerships with my alma mater,” she concluded.
President Woo spoke about her love of Founders’ Day. She enjoys the ceremonies of the day and the opportunity to walk around and take in the beauty of campus, from the burial ground to the new greenhouse to Monument Hill.
She noted that Senator Warner had remarked on the somewhat contrarian nature of what Sweet Briar is doing. “Even when land grant universities are giving up on their agrarian origins, here we are, a private college, actually wanting to understand our land, to incorporate our land into our studies,” she observed. “Not just in environmental science, not just in environmental engineering, but in the study of poetry, the study of the arts, in the study of business and economics, to use what we have inherited in our land as the material for study, as the material for our own maturity. I think that is something quite interesting.” But it’s logical too, she said. After all, Indiana Fletcher Williams was a farmer, so “what we’re doing is simply building on that legacy.”
Bronaugh and Ring served as the convocation speakers. “It is a great day to be alive. It is a great day to be in agriculture and it is an even better day to be at Sweet Briar,” Bronaugh said to loud applause. The number of women leaders in agriculture, natural resources and forestry is growing quickly, she observed, and she knows why. “It is a lot about the way that we think, that we lead and plan, and as President Woo said: We are tenacious. We don’t give up until we are successful.”
Ring said she was happy to be celebrating Sweet Briar’s accomplishments. “Your founder, Indiana Fletcher Williams, would be very proud,” she noted. Ring has come to know the College well since her appointment nearly two years ago, when she visited for the first time. She went on to describe the ways her agency has helped women farmers be successful and keep their farms. She observed that state has been growing its craft beverage industry, and the College will help that effort by providing grapes for Virginia wines. In addition, her office is addressing a wide variety of food and agriculture issues in the state, including increasing pollinator habitats on state lands and educational institutions and “[Sweet Briar] is a model for that,” she said. “I’m going to be telling everyone about what you’re doing here.”
“I am excited about the progress that is underway and the redevelopment that is happening on your campus,” she said. “Sweet Briar has the opportunity to continue to lead and to deepen the legacy of your founder. I personally look forward to observing the extraordinary developments that are yet to come.” To the students, she said: “The Commonwealth of Virginia needs you and the world needs you. We need your passion, your creativity, your resilience, your conscientiousness, your diligence and your commitment. You come from a long line of women who get things done.”
Concluding the Founders’ Day convocation, Dean Teresa Garrett stood up to recognize the students who have been honored with College awards and departmental academic prizes.
Following convocation, the community walked to Monument Hill for the ceremony that honors the Fletcher-Williams family and the mark they have made on thousands of young women since the school’s founding in 1901. Daisies were laid on the stones to honor the family, including a young girl whose life was cut tragically short.
Walking down the hill, the campus community then came together for dinner in Prothro. The light from the setting sun was golden in the dining room as people laughed and talked and enjoyed the wonderful food served by Sweet Briar’s catering partner, Meriwether Godsey. After dinner, a good crowd of alumnae, staff, faculty and friends gathered to hear Anna Chao “Chips” Pai ’57 speak about her new book, “From Manchurian Princess to the American Dream,” and the day was capped off with an opportunity for alumnae and current students to get to know each other better over s’mores in the atrium.
As traditions so often do, Founders’ Day becomes ever more meaningful each year as the community celebrates the College’s founders and the successes that are possible because of their foresight and generosity.