Washington College Launches Asterisk Initiative


Project seeks to reckon honestly with previously unacknowledged history surrounding African Americans


The Asterisk Initiative – a key component within the larger Washington College History Project – has unveiled the untold stories attached to seven symbols and spaces around campus that reflect the institution’s historic connections to slavery. The goal of this important project is to share the unvarnished truth about the individuals commemorated in these landmarks, as well as celebrate the hidden contributions and sacrifices made by African Americans.

In academic writing, the asterisk symbol is one that tells us to pause and look further, revealing essential context and subtext. The Asterisk Initiative literally makes history visible by placing asterisk-shaped markers on campus landmarks that have deeper stories to tell, including the George Washington statue, William Smith Hall, Hynson-Ringgold House, and Thomas E. Morris Hall (formerly Harford Hall), among others.

The marker that is now affixed to each site includes a QR code directing visitors to a website where visitors will find stories, pictures, videos and a virtual tour of the site itself.

In his video introduction of the Asterisk Initiative, Interim Provost and Dean Michael Harvey shares this: “When we look at the history of our College, the asterisk helps us see where we need to explain more, or where we’ve omitted a vital part of our story. It helps us be more honest, acknowledge our past and maybe build a better future.”

This initial launch features several videos, including the introduction just cited; the story of College Founder William Smith as narrated by Interim President, Dr. Wayne Powell; and a third featuring Adam Goodheart, Director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, that offers the history of the Custom House, which was built in 1746 and was the home of Thomas Ringgold, an active slave trader in the Chesapeake Region. He was also an early leader in the movement that would result in American independence.

“This is a legacy that we continue to grapple with today,” said Goodheart -- noting that the Custom House was both a site of terrible atrocities and of courage and resistance, “one that reflects the deep-rooted paradoxes of America itself. While the worst chapters of this building’s past can never -- and should never – be erased, we hope that by writing new chapters we can build a brighter future within these walls.”

Additional videos will be released over the next two weeks.

This first group of sites was carefully selected based on the work that the Acknowledge Committee – one of three sub-committees attached to the WC History Project – did to more fully understand the College’s most troubling legacies. Both Smith and Washington --the College’s namesake -- were slaveholders, for example, and both are featured prominently and proudly throughout the College. In the case of George Washington, he is in fact part of the College’s DNA.

This project is in no way about revoking the legacies of Smith, Washington, and others who built Washington College, it is instead about facing that history – the good and the bad – head-on and learning from it, in a nod to the overall liberal arts experience offered.

In order to promote further dialogue around this initiative, a special Q&A session with students has been scheduled for February 15, with other sessions to follow for different audiences. There will also be opportunities to make suggestions for new sites that help to further the community’s understanding of the complex individuals that have shaped the College’s history.

The hope now is to augment the project over time with the addition of more sites. A key discovery of this work has been the stories of important contributions to the College by generations of Black students, faculty and staff. Learning about and celebrating those figures in a more meaningful way is a positive outcome of this effort.

About the Washington College History Project

The Washington College History Project takes as its charge the honest and forthright examination of the institution’s troubling historical legacy of racism and the urgent need to acknowledge and reconcile this history in order to dismantle racial injustices in the present moment. The Project has a 3-part mission: to illuminate George Washington’s and Washington College’s historical connection to enslavement and race; to acknowledge this history through public statements and symbolic actions; and to work for change on campus and within campus culture in response to this historical legacy.

This project is sponsored this year by the Richard E. Holstein “68 Program in Ethics, which promotes ethics education in the classroom, across campus, and in the community. The program brings figures of national significance to campus to meet with students and lecture publicly about ethical issues in society; sponsors the Holstein Prize in Ethics, awarded each year for the senior thesis that best demonstrates an appreciation for ethics in a chosen field of study; and supports faculty who design or revise their courses to incorporate ethical issues.