Wake Forest University’s connection to slavery as discovered by Slave, Race and Memory Project members

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Wake Forest University’s motto is Pro Humanitate, meaning, “For Humanity.” However, the members of a new project started by the university, titled the Wake Forest University Slavery, Race and Memory Project, came to find that wasn’t always truly the case.

“We saw there was actually quite a bit of connection between Wake Forest and slavery,” said Tim Pyatt, dean of the Z. Smith Reynolds Library.

Wake Forest University’s history dates back to 1832, when the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina’s Committee on Education bought a 600-acre plantation from Dr. Calvin Jones in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Originally the Wake Forest Manual Labor Institute, founded in 1834, students were required to perform at least three hours of manual labor every day to learn about agricultural science.

“Well, we were founded on a former plantation in eastern North Carolina where the slave economy was king there,” Pyatt said.

At the time, the Board of Trustees insisted that manual labor was only to be performed by students, saying, “On motion resolved that the labour of black men be at no times employed in the cultivation of the farm.”

But, in 1835, the College Building was built. The institute contracted a Hillsborough architect named John Berry for the construction. The bricks for the building were made on-site and the labor was done by slaves belonging to Berry. Two of them died in a fall and were buried in the Wake Forest Cemetery. The university says their graves were bound by a brick wall which was later razed during the Jim Crow Era.

“Several of our past presidents were slave owners as were many of board of trustees members during the Antebellum period,” Pyatt said.

In 1839, Dr. Samuel Wait was named president of the college. Documents show he had slaves in his household as early as 1830. All four of Wake Forest’s presidents during that period owned slaves and hired them out to the college to do domestic chores.

“The college would actually hire enslaved workers from local slave owners to do a lot of, basically the housekeeping, washing and really maintain the school,” Pyatt said.

Pyatt also said some trustees, faculty and students were also slave owners.

In 1836, the estate of a planter named John Blount was donated to Wake Forest.

“Which included 16 slaves of people which were sold to benefit the college endowment,” Pyatt said.

When Blount’s wife died in 1859, those slaves were sold by the college for a total of $10,718.

“There was another earlier sale of two individuals, and then we started looking at the census records and particularly the slave census records,” Pyatt said.

As research continued, the project’s members discovered more than 60 enslaved individuals who were in some way associated with the college.

Pyatt said, while Wake Forest never owned the slaves forced to work on campus, it always relied on hired ones.

“Going forward, we do want to recognize that these people – through no choice of their own – really helped build the college,” he said.

In 1946, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation offered Wake Forest College $330,000 annually, in perpetuity, to move to Winston-Salem. Four years later, President Harry S. Truman broke ground for the new Reynolda Campus Library. In 1956, Wake Forest College moved from Wake Forest to its new home in Winston-Salem.

“We should not just think that it’s a southern issue,” Wake Forest Professor of the Humanities Corey D.B. Walker said. “It’s a northern issue, it’s an American issue. It’s an issue that goes to the very foundations of the nation.”

Sixty years after the move to Winston-Salem, the now-university started looking into its relationship with slavery. The Slavery, Race and Memory Project was formed in 2019.

“It’s vitally important for universities to do this in a holistic manner and to do it in an unflinching manner,” Walker said.

During this year’s Founder’s Day Convocation, current Wake Forest University President Nathan O. Hatch issued an apology.

“It is important and overdue that, on behalf of Wake Forest University, I unequivocally apologize for participating in and benefiting from the institution of slavery. 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,” Hatch said, in part.

The apology, in its entirety, is included among the essays put together by the project’s members.

Literature they say will live on.

“We’re not a task force set up with a sunset date. We’re gonna continue working until we have this right,” Pyatt said.

While they started with research of the Antebellum Period, the project wants to look further, into the Jim Crow Era, and even up to how the university’s move to Winston-Salem impacted people with something as seemingly simple as the construction of University Parkway.

The Slavery, Race and Memory project can be found here.

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