Remembering our past

Wheaton’s mixed legacy on issues of race

02.28.19

By Santoro Guiggio

Wheaton’s first president, Jonathan Blanchard was a dedicated abolitionist, a radical who called for racial justice. In a copy of “The Western Citizen and the Free Press” from July 8, 1851, he was listed as the chairman of a Christian anti-slavery conference that sought to “[consider] the duty of the churches in respect to slavery and other palpable sins.” For Blanchard, his advocacy for abolition expanded into the use of Blanchard Hall as a stop on the Underground Railroad. In another copy of the same paper from Oct. 7, 1851, Blanchard is reported giving a speech denouncing slavery before the American Missionary Association.

Associate Professor of History Karen Johnson, who specializes in the history of race and religion in 20th century America, complicates this narrative in her article, “Remembering Our Racial Past: Using Institutional Lament to Shape Affections.” Johnson writes about how Blanchard harbored some harmful opinions about what to do with the Native Americans who occupied land that the United States wanted to control. He felt that the Native American people needed to be removed from the land, even as he expressed regret about the way American military forces treated them. Blanchard also felt that the Native Americans needed to be “civilized” which “many Native Americans today view … as promoting cultural genocide,” according to Johnson.

Discrimination against Native Americans is a part of the story Wheaton College’s narrative cannot be told without. As Johnson writes in her article, “the college still sits on Native American land, literally grounded in native soil that American Indians continue to see as their homeland.”

As time went on, Wheaton’s record on race only grew more complicated. David Malone, the Dean of College and Seminary Library at Calvin College, addresses such issues in his article, “The Wheaton Context.” “The emergence of fundamentalism,” he writes, “influenced transitions in race relations and skewed the college’s founding vision … leaving social efforts to more liberal Christians.” During Charles Blanchard’s time as Wheaton College’s second president, there was growing discrimination against people of color on campus, including the story of Nellie Bryant, a student in the 1910s who was expelled for being African American.

Still, students of color continued to enroll at Wheaton. During an independent study in 2011, former Wheaton student Leah Fulton wrote “Historical Glimpses of Color.” Fulton’s text records several students of East Asian descent attending the college in the 1920s and 1930s. Another notable student of color at the college in the 1920s was Charles Satchell Morris. However, as Assistant Archivist Keith Call mentions in his Buswell Library Special Collections blog post Quite an Aristocratic Negro,” Morris was no fan of Wheaton College. When asked to donate to the college to help complete Blanchard Hall, he recounted how Charles Blanchard had allowed him to be unfairly expelled from the college dining hall and for that reason he would not contribute even “10 cents to complete Blanchard Hall.”

For African Americans in particular, Wheaton was not the most welcoming community in the 1930s and 1940s. According to Fulton’s text, in the 1940s Herbert Oliver was the first African American student to graduate from Wheaton since the 1920s. On top of this, several letters between President James Oliver Buswell and Rev. Wyeth Willard in 1939 describe conflict at the college over whether or not to admit an African American woman named Rachel Boone. As Malone notes in his text, there were concerns on the part of college authorities that the school could not serve people of her race. He cites the school’s Executive Council as saying that “social problems” would arise from her being accepted by the college.

During the Raymond Edman and Hudson Armerding administrations, changes occurred that began moving the college towards a path of rectifying racial disparities. Malone mentions that President Edman made an unsuccessful attempt to support the National Scholarship Service and Fund for Negros. He also established a committee on race relations that revealed the various forms of discrimination against minority students that were a part of life at Wheaton College.

As Fulton notes in her booklet, during the tenure of Armerding, several initiatives were launched in an effort to encourage minority students to attend Wheaton College. In 1968, a Compensatory Education Program was created to increase educational opportunities for minorities. A copy of the Wheaton Record from May 24, 1968 states that the program involved admitting 12 students (most of whom were black) from low-income areas. The article noted that “the program would waive certain admissions requirements and provide remedial and financial aid where needed.”

Unfortunately, the program did not work out as well as its creators had hoped. Fulton mentioned an article that described the program by saying “the idea was good but the methodology was wrong” and that some students even suffered “emotional and psychological wounds” from it. In 1970, the Educational Opportunity Program was established to improve minority enrollment at Wheaton. A decade later, towards the end of Armerding’s tenure, the Director of Minority Student Development position was established to help improve the experiences of minorities on campus.

After the end of Armerding’s time serving as president in the early 1980s, the college administration and the student body made new efforts to diversify Wheaton College, to celebrate minority cultures and pursue racial reconciliation. To emphasize the importance of diversity, President Richard Chase wrote an article titled “Diversity and Unity,” published in the college bulletin’s newsletter “InForm” during his second year at the college. This article does not specifically mention race, but it does call for members of the college to remember the unity of all believers in the body of Christ, even in the face of the diversity of the individual members of that body. It also warns of the dangers of simplistic generalizations about and judgments of others. Malone notes in his article that during President Duane Litfin’s tenure the college started the African-American Church Lecture Series and even more recently created the Church and Nieves scholarship for Latinx and African American students. Student groups like Gospel Choir (1986), the William Osborne Society (1987) and the Solidarity Cabinet (2006) were also formed during this pivotal time.

Despite these moves toward increasing the diversity of the student body and toward offering greater acknowledgment of and respect for minority students and their cultures, contradictions still characterize Wheaton’s relationship with race. Research from 1997, cited in Malone’s article, found that the white majority on campus reacted with indifference toward minority groups even if they were not aggressively prejudiced against them. The study claimed that majority students believed “that [racism] is not a problem on a ‘friendly campus’ like Wheaton’s. Such a belief … may be rooted in students’ limited definition of racism as the most overt types of prejudice.” As members of the college’s administration and student body tried to combat racism at Wheaton, this indifference by the white majority represents one of the latest of the contradictions in Wheaton’s history of race relations, one that endures to this day.

Since 1997, however, student diversity has increased 11.4 percent. As of 2016, 21.6 percent of Wheaton students were people of color. This was helped by efforts such as the From the Heart for the Kingdom campaign, which ran from 2013 to 2018.

Recent changes have included revisions to the covenant to include relevant language about diversity and community, expansion of the Office of Multicultural Development, engaging in external reviews of campus diversity, creating student leadership training for students of color and intentionally focusing on hiring a more diverse and ethnically varied staff. The Chaplain’s Office also made intentional choices to invite more speakers of color to campus for chapel and to hold events to further the discussion of racial and ethnic relations on campus.

Another large step for Wheaton was the creation of the Chief Intercultural Engagement Officer in the Senior Administrative Cabinet (SAC), which was filled by Sheila Caldwell. Caldwell, who received a doctorate in education from the University of Georgia in addition to completing the Harvard Kennedy School Strategies for Building and Leading Diverse Organizations Executive Education program, is the first woman of color to serve on the SAC. She has a vision “to deepen ethnic diversity, promote racial reconciliation, and advance cultural understanding,” according to the Wheaton Magazine.

Though Blanchard Hall’s official designation as a stop on the Underground railroad in 2012 by President Obama was significant, it was only one event in a long and complicated history of race relations at Wheaton that is still being written today.

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