Founders’ Day 2020 is layered with meaning: action, change, reflection, honor and challenges, just as this year has been for the world. It’s one that will leave a substantial mark on history for decades, if not centuries. While we all are wondering what the future will hold, as a nation, we also have been reflecting on the past and how it has contributed to the inequalities and injustices of today.
The current of this Founders’ Day flowed in the same direction. We reflected on the immense challenges that we all overcame and the many changes that we adopted to keep everyone safe and healthy. We honored our outstanding and distinguished students and our entire founding family, which includes the enslaved African Americans and Monacan Indians.
As with all traditions and events this year, the spirit and poignant messages were set in a socially distanced environment. On Thursday evening, Lynn Rainville, our former academic dean, spoke about Sweet Briar’s history as a plantation and the impact of our invisible founders—the enslaved people who labored on the Sweet Briar Plantation and their descendants who helped build the College.
Due to the remnants of Hurricane Sally, her talk was moved from the Quad to the Chapel. There, only the students who pre-registered for the talk attended in person while the majority of people watched a live stream on our Founders’ Day webpage. If you missed her moving and deeply informative talk, Roots and Remembrance: Recognizing Forgotten Founders, you can watch it in full, anytime, at the link above.
“You can’t understand American history, let alone Sweet Briar history, without talking about African Americans, and here, also Native Americans,” said Lynn. “We are just miles away from the ancestral homeland of the Monacans, and although the enslaves Monacans here were a smaller percentage of that enslaved community, they were still present, and their descendants—just like the descendants of the enslaved African Americans—were also still working here through the 20th century and into the present. So, two groups that have been, if not forgotten, certainly overlooked in some of the traditional histories, are completely critical to understanding the growth of the plantations—multiple plantations including the ones before Elijah Fletcher arrived—and the construction of the College and its associated buildings and the institution that survives to this day.”
After Lynn’s talk, everyone was going to walk to the Sweet Briar Plantation Burial Ground to lay flowers and have a moment of silence to honor these important men and women. But, Hurricane Sally caused us to reschedule.
The next day, Friday afternoon, convocation was held on the Quad. The Rev. Deacon Katharine Chase ’67 delivered the invocation, followed by a welcome from board member Karen Jackson and remarks from President Meredith Woo. Dwana Waugh—assistant professor of history and chair of the Presidential Working Group on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion—was the featured speaker. Dean Teresa Garrett recognized the 18 recipients of our nine academic and College awards. Rev. Chase concluded the event with a benediction. The speakers faced the Chapel while chairs with daisies laid across them were distanced in the grass for seniors who, for the first time, wore their robes. No other place is as special and layered with meaning as the Quad, as you look out over the heart of the historic campus.
“This is my first Founders’ Day, so it’s extra special for me to be able to be here with you today,” said Karen. “I was doing some research and trying to set myself up for inspiring remarks on this austere day, and the word useful kept coming up. . . . What did Indiana really mean by useful? I have to believe that she was using code—by the way, she used that word. I think she was really meaning impactful, important, influential and maybe even a little audacious pursuits that she thought the women of Sweet Briar would be pursuing.”
President Woo remarked how unique we are as an institution to know so well who our founders are. “It’s very important to know where you come from. It’s very important to know your origins because without knowing your origins, in many ways, you cannot know who you are. . . . If it takes a village to raise a child, it certainly takes a village to found a college. This College was founded not by one person, not by one family, but by a whole village of people that loved this place. And that includes not only the founding fathers, founding mothers, but also generations of people who worked here: generations of African Americans and Monacan Indians. Over time, it has become a community that’s very tightly woven with great influence and great distinctiveness, and so, always remembering where we came from: that it took more than a woman or a family to raise this village, to raise this institution. I think that’s very important, and today we’re grateful to them and their foresight to enable us to reach where we are.”
Next, Dwana addressed our community, continuing the case for why our institutional history is important. “So what is Sweet Briar’s institutional history?” she asked. “Well, it’s more than a place. It’s more than a building. It’s more than one single person. It is the sum total of these things that makes us a community. It becomes our identity. The history of Sweet Briar is a story about aspiration, perspiration and inspiration told over and over again. We should be inspired by the work we as a community have done in the past. But we cannot rest there. The institutional history of Sweet Briar speaks to who we are and who we want to become. It is about our aspirations. To combat the impulse to pat ourselves too completely on our backs, it takes perspiration.”
Dwana’s remarks were authentic and personal. “I am humbled to be speaking before you,” she said. “When I accepted a teaching position here two years ago, I became the first black woman on the faculty in this institution’s history. To think that I would have not been able to attend this institution at its inception in 1901 but can now teach and deliver this year’s Founders’ Day speech gives me pause. I hope it gives you pause too.”
She concluded with reflective and actionable words: “The aspirations attached to this ‘perpetual memorial to Daisy’ necessitates continuous hard work. It is through this perspiration that we get inspired and this process is cyclical. We learn. We question. We dig for answers. And we remain committed. This effort, done collaboratively, gives us a sense of belonging to this beautiful landscape and place.”
Following convocation, the seniors and their sister sophmore class began the walk to Monument Hill, led by the traditional sound of the bagpipe. A safe distance afterwards, the juniors and their sister first-year class made their way down the long road. At the end of the day, everyone met in the Student Commons Courtyard outside of Prothro for dinner and ice cream alfresco.