William & Mary owned slaves from its very beginning. Slaves were an integral part to the university's everyday operations. Additionally, slaves worked on Nottoway Plantation, which was owned by William & Mary for several years. The profits collected from the labor these slaves performed at Nottoway Quarter funded scholarships for the white male students at William & Mary.

Leading up to, during, and after the Civil War, William & Mary employed freed Blacks as well. George Greenhow worked as a janitor throughout the antebellum years. Greenhow called himself the "the only negro educated William & Mary" because he was taught how to read and write by a student.

Henry Billups worked for the university for over fifty years, in several different capacities. He rang the Wren bell alongside President Benjamin Ewell and is uniquely known for procuring alcohol for students and faculty alike during prohibition. Billups worked for William & Mary from 1888-1952, a time marked by Jim Crow and Massive Resistance.

In 1914, former slaver, author and activist Booker T. Washington addressed the university community in the Wren Chapel. Ironically, the university's President and a staunch critic of President Lincoln Lyon G. Tyler introduced Washington.

During the Spring of 2018, William & Mary erected a plaque at the Wren Building to honor the first three African Americans in residence at the university: Lynn Briley, Janet Brown Strafer and Karen Ely.