By Anthony S. Parent, Jr.

On a snowy February afternoon in 2020, hundreds of students, faculty, staff, and friends gathered in Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University in quiet anticipation of a major announcement from President Nathan O. Hatch. Hatch opened his remarks by introducing the Founders’ Day Convocation program. Then he acknowledged the harm inflicted on enslaved people in the founding of the university. The college was established at the “Forest of Wake” plantation and presidents, trustees, faculty, and students were themselves slaveholders. The college also benefited from the bequest of 16 enslaved people sold to fund the first major endowment. The audience stood in unison in recognizing the solemnity of the moment.

As part of that transformation, President Hatch highlighted the recent work of the  Slavery, Race and Memory Project (SRMP), chaired by Kami Chavis, Associate Provost for Academic Initiatives; and Tim Pyatt, Dean of the Z. Smith Reynolds Library, to reclaim the histories silenced through the years. The university also joined the Universities Studying Slavery national consortium, commissioned Andrew Canady to write a peer-reviewed monograph history of Wake Forest University and slavery, and hired Sarah Soleim as Manager of Community and Academic Learning at Wake Forest Historical Museum. On September 4, 2019, Corey D.B. Walker delivered the inaugural Slavery, Race and Memory Project lecture to a standing-room-only audience in Kulynych Auditorium in the Porter Byrum Welcome Center.

In his essay “From the Forest of Wake to Wake Forest College,” Andrew McNeill Canady of Averett University in Danville, Virginia, traces the early years of the development of Wake Forest University on the “Forest of Wake” plantation in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Massachusetts native Dr. Calvin Jones, who had married into a North Carolina slaveholding family, purchased 615 acres for $4,000, which he named the plantation at Wake Forest. Jones, a physician and former mayor of Raleigh, owned 20 enslaved people in 1821. Catching western fever from the expanding cotton market, he sold his plantation to Baptists for half of his original purchase price. When he moved his plantation lock, stock, and barrel to Tennessee, his enslaved workforce had doubled to about 40.

Founded as Wake Forest Institute, as it was known from 1834-38,  the campus grounds included Jones’s home, seven slave cabins, and “various outbuildings.” Despite its plantation provenance, the college never owned slaves. Transforming the plantation into a campus, the institute contracted Hillsborough architect John Berry, who tasked his enslaved builders with construction of “the large multi-storied brick complex.” Two of the workers fell, died, and were buried on the grounds, their graves bounded by a brick wall. Unfortunately, the brick wall was razed during the Jim Crow era, leaving the original site unmarked, a pattern of erasure that has marked the landscape.

Although the Institute established a “steward’s department” requiring manual labor from students on the farm, Wake Forest still hired enslaved cooks, washerwomen, and domestics. Although the college never owned enslaved people, enslaved workers were integral to the building and maintenance of the college. Founding president Samuel Wait and members of the faculty were slaveholders. (Indeed, all four Wake Forest presidents of the antebellum era were slaveholders.) They hired out their enslaved workers to the college to do domestic chores. Enslaved workers had to deal with the isolation of working away from family and with the difficulty of answering to several masters, including students who carried this sense of authority to college with them.

In 1836, John Blount made the first major gift to the college. He bequeathed an estate that, at the time of his wife’s death in 1859, included 16 enslaved people. When finalized in 1860, the estate endowed the college with over $10,000 for “poor and indigent young men destined for the ministry.”

Bill Leonard, Founding Dean of the School of Divinity and Professor Emeritus, argues that by the time of Wake Forest’s founding in1834, southern white Baptists were solidly pro-slavery. Accordingly, Wake Forest, Baylor, and Furman colleges were founded by slaveholding ministers. The rise of white southern Baptist proslavery theology, which Leonard concludes was “Defending the Indefensible,” spanned events of Denmark Vesey’s slave conspiracy and the Civil War in Kansas following the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

The Southern Baptist’s strident defense of slavery began when Richard Furman, pastor of First Baptist Church of Charleston, wrote “EXPOSITION,” a reactionary diatribe to Denmark Vesey’s conspiracy, in 1822. Vesey, a member of Emmanuel, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, had organized a rebellion to seize the city of Charleston. Furman blamed abolitionist “faulty biblical hermeneutics” for stirring up the enslaved to revolt. He responded with a pro-slavery “literalistic hermeneutic,” which he claimed proved slavery’s efficacy. If cruelty existed in slavery, he argued, both the Old and New Testaments presented best practices for humane treatment. The Furman doctrine explicitly stated that what is biblically sanctioned cannot be sin.

Southern white Baptists were non-apologetic about their relationship to slavery, which they felt biblically sanctioned and socially sound. Earlier apologists uneasy in their defense of the institution had supported the American Colonization Society, a movement to repatriate free Blacks to Liberia. Institutionalizing the proslavery trend in 1845, advocates founded the Southern Baptist Convention, splitting with northern Baptists over the issue of slavery. Richard Fuller later published Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution (1852), which reiterated the Furman doctrine: What is biblically sanctioned cannot be sin.

A critic and correspondent of Fuller, president Francis Wayland of Brown University, published The Elements of Moral Science (1835), which questioned both the humanness and the viability of chattel slavery. He also opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed the expansion of slavery into former Louisiana Purchase territory. The Biblical Recorder reacted briskly, condemning his alleged characterization of slavery as morally wrong.   Curiously, Wake Forest College trustees urged the distillation of Moral Science on campus seemingly without consequence.

In “The Waits, Women, and Slavery,” Mary Tribble, Senior Advisor for Engagement Strategies in the Office of Alumni Engagement, examines the intertwined history of her family, the university and the culture of slavery at Wake Forest and in the South. Sally Wait went South from abolitionist New England, where the prevailing attitude was expressed by her sister-in-law: “Our strong and prevailing objection to the south is, slavery.”  Sally experienced her conversion in the burnt-over district of decidedly abolitionist Brandon, Vermont. Marrying Samuel Wait meant Sally would live in places diametrically opposed to her beliefs. Their first home in 1821 at Columbian College (now George Washington University) in the District of Columbia introduced Sally to the southern institutions of the auction block, the cartwhip, and the plantation on the outskirts of town. Yet Sally in her correspondence does not divulge any expression of disgust or even disapproval.

On a fund-raising excursion for Columbian College, Samuel stopped in New Bern, North Carolina, where he was invited to pastor New Bern Baptist Church in 1827.  The mixed racial congregation consisted of 22 whites and eight blacks. Sally was hesitant to join him in a region of “much ignorance and bigotry.” She did not say a place of slavery; perhaps living in the District had inured her to the Peculiar Institution. She did eventually join her husband, bringing a white servant girl, Doratha, from Vermont to assist them. This was perhaps an effort to stave off owning or hiring enslaved people.

The Waits adjusted to slave culture, Tribble argues, the longer they stayed in the South, eventually becoming slaveholders themselves. At the same time, Samuel’s ministry meant preaching at revivals, often with black ministers on the platform, to mixed racial audiences. Neither Sally nor Samuel wrote anything about slavery, an omission that speaks to a consciousness of guilt.

Consistent with Leonard’s interpretation on Vesey’s Conspiracy, Turner’s Insurrection turned attention to religion. Nat Turner, a Baptist minister, once again drew southern wrath to abolitionists. Sally’s mother feared for her daughter’s safety as a “liberal” transplant, suggesting she was unaware of the Waits’ complicity with the institution.

Tribble, a descendant of Samuel and Sally Wait, set out to research a story of a pious helpmate and a struggling Baptist minister who would be constitutionally against slavery and who could not have afforded them regardless of moral conviction. What she found in her archival research was more than just a family romance. Indeed, she poignantly concludes, “As it turns out, both our family’s narrative and the university’s narrative were wrong.”

Addressing a theme drawn on by Canady and Leonard about the early enslaved builders and gravesites, Derek Hicks, Associate Professor of Religion and Culture in the School of Divinity, reflects on the African burial grounds on the original campus.

Hicks acted on a revelation of a recent archeological excavation of an African American graveyard relayed to him by Sarah Soleim, Manager of Community and Academic Learning at Wake Forest Historical Museum. Drawing on Winston-Salem poet Jacinta White’s Resurrecting the Bones: Born from a Journey through African American Churches and Cemeteries in the Rural South, Hicks designed a class around the “African Cemetery.” The class explored the sacred grounds of Old Cemetery, which Hicks terms “a place of solace and sanctuary.” He writes how they were “struck,” an experience strongly reminiscent of the term enslaved converts used when recalling their conversion experiences. Hicks writes, “How cold it was under this canopy of trees, with hauntingly swirling and singing winds, and yet heat seemed to rise up from the ground.”  Here, Hicks calls for a reclamation of the lost souls who have been historically silenced in both the historic landscape and in the history of Wake Forest University.

Resonating with this theme, Jonathan L. Walton, Dean of the School of Divinity, concludes this collection with his 2020 Founder’s Day Convocation address, “Lest We Forget.” After giving several examples of what people purported to be biblical sanction, Dean Walton responds to each with the resounding refrain: “No, it does not.” If derivation and omission in familiar quotations have undoubtedly had rhetorical effect, their consequences cannot only be misleading, but even damning to the scriptural principle purported. This self-righteous pandering does not merely silence ancestral voices; it even erases evidence of past experiences in a twisted version of the truth. For example, a generation ago (1984) the Southern Baptist Convention evoked scripture to exclude women from the ordained ministry. (“No, it does not.”)

Yet this was hardly the first instance of reactionary behavior of white Southern Baptists to evoke scripture. They founded Wake Forest College on a theology grounded in a biblical interpretation that sanctioned slavery supported by the labor of enslaved workers and funded by a bequest which sold men, women, and children.

“We owe our very existence, in part, to the exploited lives and enslaved labor of people of African descent,” writes Dean Walton. “Men and women like Isaac, Pompie, Caroline, and Lucy sold from the John Blount estate in 1860, precious people whose humanity was sacrificed to prepare young, white Baptist men for the ministry. Baptist young men whose conception of Christ supported America’s serpentine system of slavery.” Only the call for an acknowledgment and reckoning of this past and an equitable reparation for it will provide us with “a firm foundation to stand with and for humanity.”

On that snowy February afternoon, President Hatch reminded the assembled audience that “we acquiesced to the times and lacked the moral imagination to envision better for all. Like those who went before us, we can be blinded by our own privilege.” For this reason, Hatch stated:

“I apologize for the exploitation and use of enslaved people – both those known and unknown – who helped create and build this University through no choice of their own. I apologize that our founders did not recognize and support the humanity and intrinsic value of those they enslaved. And I profoundly regret that subsequent generations of this University did not affirm the humanity of the enslaved individuals who made our existence possible . . . . Acknowledging past wrongs and taking responsibility are only the start of repairing damage and pursuing healing. A true apology requires taking action and incorporating meaningful change.”

President Hatch’s apology punctuates this phase of the Slavery, Race and Memory Project. The project’s response to W.E.B. Du Bois’s call, as prefaced by Corey D.B. Walker, is to strip away the nostalgia of the college’s founding and revisit the trauma of the institution’s relationship to slavery. Confronting and engaging this troubling history and its legacies affirms our university’s intellectual and ethical commitment to realize our motto, Pro Humanitate.