The Paths We Choose 2022 Convocation Address by Provost Lena Hill
Thank you, Dean Straughan, for that kind introduction, and my thanks to President Dudley for giving me the opportunity to speak on this occasion. This is my absolute favorite time of the academic year. There is nothing quite like the return of students, faculty, and staff to campus. The buzz of preparing for new classes; the crispness on the edges of the days as opening games of the season commence; and the many, many, many meals we share together signal that we are getting back to business at W&L.
For our newest arrivals, the class of 2026, convocation heralds a truly new beginning. I hope you have enjoyed the exhilaration of first-year orientation with events that have introduced you to your classmates, planted seeds that will grow into lifelong friendships, and initiated your discovery of all W&L has to offer. To our rising sophomores and juniors, you sit with a more nuanced understanding of yourself and your goals, likely facing this academic year with the adrenaline and sense of promise that accompanies new challenges and planned triumphs. And to you seniors, your beginning is leading to a much-anticipated celebratory end, the conclusion of your studies at W&L. Cherish every moment. To our law students, you arrive to W&L farther along in your educational journey, but as your first week and a half of classes undoubtedly attests, there is still so much to learn.
We have each traveled very different paths to this moment where we convene as members of this community. Our first-year undergraduate students hail from 43 states and 26 countries which means they have taken all manner of transportation to get to get here. Lexington. This is real, because Lexington is not the easiest place to reach. But this data point does little to capture the various paths you travelled in life to arrive at this moment. The vastly different topographies, the unique cultures, different languages—or just the very different accents (yes, New Yorkers often sound quite different from South Carolinians)—remind us of how our hometowns have shaped us. For many of you, your choice to attend W&L represents your first independent decision about your educational path. College is the moment when the law no longer compels you to attend school. You are here because you want to be.
This is the moment when the road you travel is of your choosing.
This evening, I would like to explore what it means to be at W&L at this moment in our institution’s and nation’s history where every one of you is empowered to choose your path. The choices you make will have ramifications that stretch far beyond Lexington, and I hope you face this year with a sense of excitement, anticipation, and expectant responsibility.
As we prepare for a new term of classes at the ninth oldest university in the United States, I want to contemplate two Virginians who very intentionally chose paths in relation to higher education that dramatically influenced our nation and the world. In focusing on these two leaders, I am interested in their dedication to education in the U.S. South. The South has a particular history in this country, and I would argue that we at W&L are uniquely positioned to lead the nation and world in studying it. Now, of course, I know and respect the fact that W&L students and faculty embrace the full breadth of a liberal arts education, and I am by no means suggesting you all become U.S. history majors and scholars. But whether you are immersed in the study of the humanities, social sciences, arts, or natural sciences, I encourage you to ponder how you are preparing to contribute to, shape, or participate in broader national discussions. If you are thinking that you do not intend to engage contemporary challenging conversations around us, remember that silence is also expressive. Before you graduate, I hope you will take part in an event sponsored by our Director of Institutional History or our new DeLaney Center, areas of campus respectively dedicated to the study of our unique history as well as current southern race relations, politics and culture. At its best, the study of history not only informs our understanding of the present but helps us shape our future with wisdom and discernment.
With this in mind, let’s explore what we might call a “Tale of Two Washingtons from Virginia” by considering two journeys—one taken by George Washington, and the other travelled by Booker T. Washington—to bring into focus decisions about the paths we choose this year at W&L.
As a scholar of African American literature and visual art, I have found repeated occasion to analyze Black writers’ examination of George Washington. When I first arrived to W&L, I was excited to receive for my office an early print of Edward Savage’s 1796 painting of the Washington family, a portrait I first discovered through a reference in Ralph Ellison’s posthumously published novel, Three Days Before the Shooting. Ellison engages the painting to slyly comment upon the influence enslaved African Americans possessed during the most unexpected moments of U.S. history. I’m happy to talk more about that reading over lunch or coffee, but for this evening, I want to explore what we might learn from Washington’s posture toward learning from those unlike him.
As the first president, he placed great importance on connecting different areas of the country and prioritized traveling to all 13 colonies to educate himself about the people of the new nation. The last such educational trip he took during his presidency is known as his “Southern Tour” and occurred in 1791. Washington was a Virginian, but he did not intimately know the rest of the South, and his Southern Tour was intended to rectify that. He met with dignitaries throughout his travels, but he also privileged meeting with regular folks. As he wrote to Vice President John Adams, he sought to, QUOTE, become “better acquainted with the country’s principal characters and internal circumstances, as well as to be more accessible to numbers of persons who might give him useful information and advices.”
Washington also had political aims. He was not the most rousing speaker, nor was he a riveting writer. But standing 6 foot 3 inches tall in the late 18th century, Washington cut a striking figure. Before there was Hollywood and the paparazzi, Washington understood the importance of seeing and being seen by the people. His specially crafted carriage constructed for the journey was an early version of “The Beast,” the current presidential Cadillac that happens to be codenamed “Stagecoach.” While “The Beast” is essentially an 18-foot tank rumored to have more weapons and gadgets than James Bond’s Aston Martin, Washington’s 18th-century state-of-the-art carriage simply boasted reinforced wheels and a stately cream color. His gleaming coach often got stuck in rough roads and forests and was even pulled into the river by his horses.
His travel party included eight men, two of whom were enslaved black men named Giles and Paris. Washington did not shy away from taking on serious topics during his educational tour of the South. When he arrived to Georgia, he met with Governor Telfair to discuss the issue of enslaved men and women escaping to Spanish Florida. In North Carolina he met with Kuh-TAA-buh Native American Leaders about lands the Continental Congress had reserved for them.
Washington often slept at the homes of regular folks, and he valued hearing their opinions. Of course, looking back, there are several areas where we wish Washington would have adopted positions that would have realized the young country’s stated dedication to freedom and equality for all. Washington did, however, prioritize the importance of understanding different regional values, and this impacted his attitude toward the need for more expansive opportunities for higher education. For that, we can be grateful.
My office also boasts a picture of Booker T. Washington, a writer and leader I have researched and written about and will continue to explore in the classroom this fall. Booker T. Washington was born enslaved on a 200-acre farm about an hour and twenty minutes from where we sit right now. After being freed from slavery by the Emancipation Proclamation, Booker T. grew up in West Virginia. As a young man, he set his sights on attending Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia, one of the colleges established in 1868 to educate formally enslaved men and women. Almost 100 years after George Washington took his Southern tour to learn about the South in his horse-drawn carriage, Booker T. struck out alone on a 500-mile journey to seek an education.
Whereas George Washington began his Southern Tour 8 years after the conclusion of the American Revolutionary War, Booker T. journeyed to Hampton a mere 7 years after the conclusion of the Civil War. He left Malden, West Virginia in 1872, in the midst of Reconstruction, an era directed by the U.S. Congress and dedicated to giving rights to newly freed Black Americans. The passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments respectively abolished slavery, declared black people citizens, and gave black men the right to vote.
Notwithstanding these positive advances, this was a difficult moment for Black Americans. Although slavery had ended, racism towards freedmen was high. During his long trip to Hampton, the 16-year-old Booker T. found himself denied entrance to inns when the stagecoach he was riding stopped for the evening to give white passengers time to rest. He soon ran out of his meager travel funds and spent most of his journey begging rides on wagons and walking. He eventually made it to Hampton where he excelled.
After graduation, Booker T. completed additional studies, taught for a few years, and was then appointed to serve as the first principal of what would become Tuskegee University in Alabama. At the age of twenty-five, Booker T. opened the school on July 4, 1881 with the goal of educating Black teachers who would in turn educate the African-American masses throughout the South. Booker T. became a passionate advocate for industrial education, and he traveled the nation promoting a pragmatic educational philosophy and raising funds for Tuskegee (not much has changed in the work of a president). He also became an important informal advisor both to President Teddy Roosevelt and President Howard Taft. In 1901, Teddy Roosevelt shocked the nation by inviting Booker T. to dine at the White House, making the Tuskegee president the first black man to be entertained at the White House.
So why should we, at W&L, ponder the journeys of these two Virginia Washingtons and examine their impact on education in this country? Neither were perfect men. Their lives do not live up to the mythic ideals others have woven around them, but their aspirations were admirable and went far beyond themselves. The path George Washington followed on his Southern Tour led him to believe in the importance of expanding higher education in the U.S. and make his 1796 gift of stock to Liberty College unsurprising. Washington believed deeply in the work colleges contributed to the nation, and W&L is a direct beneficiary. Booker T. Washington never forgot his difficult journey to Hampton, and he worked tirelessly to ensure Tuskegee and other schools would answer the call to educate diverse students. He understood that our nation’s greatness depended on expanded access and a will to support excellence no matter the race, gender, or identity of the student. His early efforts are connected directly to our current mission at W&L. These Washingtons represent an inheritance.
This evening, as we prepare to begin a new academic year, we would do well to ask how the paths we choose—or for that matter, the ones we avoid—will impact others. Your decision to attend W&L may have had nothing to do with its location and connection to Southern history, but now that you are here, this will forever be the state that launches you to your next opportunity. You never know when you will be in the room where it happens, and you may represent the sole viewpoint that understands the South.
As faculty, we can continue making our classrooms places of discovery where varying viewpoints are not only welcome but encouraged and facilitated, sparking new ideas as well as rigorously drilling down into old ones. We play a crucial role in teaching our students how to think rather than what to think, thereby preparing our graduates to bridge political divides that too often break down along party lines. We would do well to remember Toni Morrison’s exhortation during the 1995 convocation address she gave when I was a sophomore at Howard University almost 30 years ago. Morrison urged us to [QUOTE] “treasure the tradition of argument in the finest sense of the word: not to destroy an opponent but to discover truth.”
We should all feel privileged to be here taking part in the higher education enterprise. Today, only 6.7% of the world population attends college. My morning climb from the parking lot to Washington Hall—alas, often made a little more challenging by my choice of footwear—reminds me that we are all climbing an educational hill at W&L, and notwithstanding the challenges, the climb is astonishingly rewarding.
This summer, I had the good fortune of traveling a different path with members of W&L’s class of 1968. These alumni graduated two years after W&L admitted its first Black students and almost 20 years before women were admitted as undergraduates. Suffice it to say, their experience on this hill was very different. But believe me when I tell how deeply invested they remain in ensuring that we all lay claim to an incredible educational path at W&L that reflects the best of the current moment. Our alumni have followed many paths away from Lexington, but their love for this place continues to bring them back. I hope the same will be true for you.
I want to conclude by thinking poetically about this hill our paths have converged upon this evening, where you will receive a liberal arts education that develops your capacity to think freely, critically, and humanely and to conduct yourselves with honor, integrity, and civility.
Amanda Gorman’s words that she shared at President Biden’s inauguration at the age of 22 offer a fitting close for this occasion. Like so many of you, she is wise beyond her years. We would do well to listen to the last lines of her inaugural poem titled, “The Hill We Climb”:
“We will rise from the sun-baked South.
We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover.
And every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country, our people
diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful.
When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid.
The new dawn balloons as we free it.
For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”