Academic Spaces: The Wren Building and Becoming a W&M Scholar
As the oldest college building in the United States, the Wren Building is a common stop on school and historical tours in Williamsburg. In 1967, the year the Legacy 3 arrived on campus, the Wren underwent renovations to bring air conditioning to all three floors. The space is known for its role in campus traditions and history but also houses classrooms regularly inhabited by students and professors. Ely, Briley, and Brown Strafer recalled the Wren Building as a place they gathered to take classes and learn.
After attending segregated high schools, the Legacy 3 had to make social and academic adjustments. “I had my first white teacher here... and went to class with my first white students at William & Mary,” said Briley. Despite the absence of African American mentors and peers, nobody felt uncomfortable speaking in lecture or discussion, although some professors were more engaging than others.
Some amount of racial prejudice was still present on campus, however. Relying on memories that are hard to talk about even now, Ely recollects a series of incidents with the chemistry department. One professor was not afraid to make his racist and sexist beliefs explicitly clear, and security guards in the chemistry building would stop Ely for identification even as white students entered around her. “Needless to say, I had a hard time there,” she said.
In the end, the most memorable professors were often the ones who invested in the personal lives of their students. Brown Strafer noted Dr. John Willis, who made a point of caring about her life in addition to academics. “He was probably the only one who ever asked, ‘How are you doing?’” she recalled. In the biology department, Ely has fond memories of a Dr. Byrd, whose enthusiasm for teaching was contagious.
After being able to speak to and listen to Karen Ely, Lynn Briley, and Janet Brown Strafer, it became apparent that although these women and their story are very inspirational and heartwarming to those who are a few generations behind, they went through the same academic struggles and gained the same academic experience as current students at the College of William & Mary. Each of the three emphasized how academics was their main focus while at the College. It was a challenging environment even then, as they all struggled to maintain their GPA and their high academic standing, while simultaneously battling the burden they carried of being the only African American women on campus. They felt the need to succeed and knew that if they managed to make it to the end, they would reap great rewards. For instance, Briley mentioned that how just based on her degree from William & Mary, she was offered a job as an English teacher. Taking hard classes gave Brown Strafer the perseverance she needed to overcome obstacles, in academics and ones later in life like finding a job in the bankrupt city of New York. All in all, by taking classes in spaces like the Wren Building and registering for classes in Blow Hall (then Blow Gym, the spaces on the campus of William and Mary became sites for Karen Ely, Lynn Briley, and Janet Brown Strafer to excel academically.