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What to Do if You Unearth a History of Slavery in Your Church, College or Institution?

With increasing attention to the roots of American slavery in religious life, more churches and faith-based ministries that existed prior to the Civil War are unearthing truths they wish weren’t true.

Then the hard questions arise: How should a church, university or organization that discovers its founders or in rare cases even the organization itself owned slaves respond to such a revelation? How should such institutions respond when it becomes known that some of their buildings were erected by slave labor or financed by the sale of enslaved persons?

This is the dilemma currently facing Baylor University, where the board of regents recently released a 90-page report detailing the slave-owning history of its founders and a set of recommendations for response. Typifying the political divisions in America today over systemic racism, to some, the Baylor report and its recommendations go too far and to others the recommendations offer too little.

One thing Baylor said it will not do is change the school’s name, even though there is documented evidence that its namesake, R.E.B. Baylor, was a slaveholder. The Baylor name also graces other prominent institutions in Texas, including the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, Baylor College of Medicine, and Baylor Scott and White Health, the largest nonprofit health care system in Texas.

Wake Forest and Wingate

Soon after Baylor University’s announcement, Wake Forest University in North Carolina — which began as a Baptist school well before the Civil War — announced May 7 a major development from its Slavery, Race and Memory Project. The university will rename its Wingate Hall to May 7, 1860 Hall. The date reflects when 16 enslaved people were sold to fund Wake Forest’s initial endowment under the leadership of then-president Washington Manly Wingate.

However, Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch said Wait Chapel — which is attached to the building currently known as Wingate Hall — will retain its name as a reminder of the slave-holding past of the school’s founders. Namesakes Samuel Wait and Washington Manly Wingate both were slaveholders.

Said Hatch of the dual approach to naming: “The complexity and contradictions create a tension that invites engagement with our story and the people whose lives are remembered and honored.”

The news from Wake Forest suddenly put the spotlight on another Baptist-founded institution in North Carolina, Wingate University. Although not founded until 1896, Wingate takes its name from the same Washington Manly Wingate associated with Wake Forest. He had been dead 17 years when the school adopted his name in tribute to his leadership among North Carolina Baptists.

In a news release, Wingate officials said: “Wingate President Rhett Brown recently became aware of the slave-owning past of the school’s namesake during a phone call with Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch. Washington Manly Wingate was a two-time president of Wake Forest University, and, according to Wake Forest sociology professor Joseph Soares, it was found that ‘every president of Wake Forest until the Civil War had enslaved human beings under him.’ That includes Manly Wingate.”

The news release added: “Knowing that the stain of past transgressions can never be eliminated and that the debt to people of color can never be repaid, Wingate University officials do believe this deeply upsetting news can serve as an opportunity for reflection, reconciliation and growth.”

Read entire article at Baptist News