Remarks for “Remember With Us: Commemoration of the Enslaved”

Greetings. Today, I am joined by leaders of the Board of Trustees – Chair Gerald Roach, Vice Chair Herman Eure and former Chair Donna Boswell – to share how our community continues to illuminate our history, address our present and reaffirm our commitments for the future.

I am profoundly grateful for so many in our community who have worked hard for us to address issues of race and equity over the last several years – the President’s Commission, co-chaired by José Villalba and Erica Still; the Slavery, Race and Memory Project, co-chaired by Kami Chavis and Tim Pyatt; and the Advisory Committee on Naming, co-chaired by Jonathan Walton and Donna Boswell. There have been scores of people involved in these efforts, and to all of them, I offer heartfelt thanks.

Most recently, the Advisory Committee on Naming has been examining meaningful ways to contextualize, remember and honor significant figures in Wake Forest’s history. Trustees, administrators, faculty, staff, students and alumni have come together to discuss how we can expand the narrative of the University. Their work has widened our understanding of the context of how our institution was started and under what circumstances it operated in the antebellum South.

As we consider our history, especially the antebellum period of our story, I would like to give a backdrop of how, in general terms, we should think about history and the past. I see five guideposts for us as we explore history and the past: we need a self-conscious reckoning with the past; we need to avoid the false dichotomy of our two dominant narratives; we need humility and empathy to fully explore history; we need to accept that people of goodwill may disagree with our position; and we need to preserve hope.

First, we need a self-conscious reckoning with the past. We need to examine the entire tapestry good, bad and indifferent; or to use the title of a recent book, “The Splendid and the Vile.” C. S. Lewis once said of humankind that nothing too good or too bad can be said about it. Any coming to terms with the past must attend to both of these and how, often, they are inextricably linked.

Second, we need to avoid two dominant and seemingly dichotomous narratives in our culture that in some ways are the mirror reflection of each other: a heroic view, one of comforting and reassuring stories of upward progress, which despite flaws, is filled with inspiration and success. The other is that the past is so corrupt and fallen that we should renounce and repudiate it completely. In this view, because history does not meet up to our current ethical standards, it should be ignored if not actively denounced. Both of these narratives are active in the marketplace of ideas, and we should avoid being placed in either of these boxes.

Third, we should explore the past with humility and empathy. Humility – because of our failures and incomplete understanding, and because most of us are subject to current customs and points of view as people were s in the past. And we know that future generations will look at even those of us who are most principled and ask, “How could they have held to that belief?” “Or why did they sit on the sideline and not take up that cause?” Shall we judge and not presume that one day, we will be judged?

And empathy. I have appreciated the perspective of Abraham Lincoln. As the Civil War drew to a close, he declared that it had been fought to destroy slavery and the cost of that conflagration was staggering beyond words. He was unflinching in his realism, using powerful imagery about two kinds of violence: He wondered whether every drop of blood drawn with the lash was being paid by another drawn with the sword. In his view, truth was marching on, but it was a path that had been violent and bloody.

Yet even in saying this in his second inaugural address, in the very next sentence, he held out an olive branch of empathy, hope and forgiveness: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right – as God gives us to see the right – let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

We owe the same deep human connection to our ancestors, even if we cannot honor all that they stood for or all that they did.

Fourth, people of goodwill disagree on how to adjudicate these complex matters. Everyone comes to this discussion with their own perspectives, experiences and ideals. Many times, people join this conversation from various positions and places.

The New York Times columnist Brett Stephens, in writing about which statues should fall and which should remain, concluded in this fashion: “A great debate about who should remain on which pedestals can be a healthy one. The right’s idea that we must preserve the worst figures to protect them does not make sense. The left’s idea that we should bring down the best because we know who they were at their worst is also flawed. An intelligent society should be able to make intelligent distinctions ”

In making our own judgements about the names on buildings and in other places within the University, we are called upon to make intelligent distinctions – and people of goodwill may disagree about exactly where lines should be drawn.

Fifth, we need to fight to preserve hope. To tell a more inclusive story, and to refrain from honoring certain figures in that story, we must not do it in anger and resentment. We have hope that a more nuanced and complete history will point to a more welcoming and hospitable community that we are committed to building.

With this framework in mind and with the work of the Advisory Committee on Naming available and made public on our website, the University Trustees recently discussed how we remember, acknowledge and honor our history.

Together, we want to remember and recount the full story that, despite their differing moral views, all four antebellum presidents – Samuel Wait, William Hooper, John Brown White and Washington Manly Wingate – gave service to Wake Forest out of their belief that education was a vehicle for engaging human minds and improving the life of one’s community.

We acknowledge that expanding the narrative of the University allows us to discuss – with transparency – the greater Wake Forest story. By truly understanding our history, we reaffirm our predecessors’ belief in the power of education and help broaden their empathy for all human beings.

We want to honor and follow the path charted by many students and faculty who have helped broaden our view of humanity, especially during the Civil Rights movement. They demonstrated the ability of Wake Forest to deepen and expand the commitment to an education that benefits our world by challenging the beliefs that limited our predecessors.

In order to truly expand the narrative of Wake Forest – not erasing the past but building on it to understand both the good and the bad – we are taking critical steps to name, honor and remember. These actions represent the principal way the University intends to come to terms with its antebellum heritage. With the full support of the University Board of Trustees:

We will rename Wingate Hall to “May 7, 1860 Hall.” By renaming this building, we acknowledge the University’s participation in slavery, are reminded of this period of our history, and remember those who served the institution against their will and whose lives were even further diminished by Wake Forest’s actions on May 7, 1860.

Additionally, we will create a memorial that provides context and greater understanding of our University’s antebellum history. It will recognize those who, across much of our story, have been erased or invisible.

I want to thank all of the members of this community who have sought to create a deeper understanding of our story – the good and the bad. Through these steps and all of these efforts, we will continue to become a place that learns to live more fully and inclusively Pro Humanitate. And in doing so, we narrow the gap between the ideals we profess and the lives we lead.

Thank you.

Remembering Our History and Honoring Our Values

Donna Boswell (’72, MA ’74), Trustee and co-chair of the Advisory Committee on Naming

Something To Be Proud Of

Dean Jonathan Lee Walton, co-chair of the Advisory Committee on Naming