In 1836, two years after the founding of what would become Wake Forest University, the estate of John Blount, a planter in Edenton, was donated to the budding institution. The estate included land and enslaved black people, and the proceeds were intended to support “poor and indigent young men destined for the ministry.”

After the death of Blount’s widow, 14 enslaved human beings were auctioned on May 7, 1860, yielding a sum of $10,718 for Wake Forest’s benefit. The details of the transaction are plainly displayed on a website maintained by the Z. Smith Reynolds Library Special Collections.

For the first 128 years of its history, a university whose endowment was literally financed by profits from black bodies and black labor excluded black people from studying in its classrooms. When Wake Forest finally admitted its first black student in 1962, it was notably a Ghanaian named Ed Reynolds, not an African American descended from enslaved persons. Next fall, the university will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the entry of the first two black female residential students, Muriel Elizabeth Norbrey (now Beth Hopkins) and Janet Graves.

Wake Forest’s troubled history with white supremacy came crashing into the open this past February with the revelation that the university’s dean of admissions and an assistant dean of admissions posed with the Confederate flag as students in the 1980s.

During one of two public apologies, Dean of Admissions Martha Allman explained that she simply didn’t think that much about the Confederate flag and what it signified in 1982 — her senior year at Wake, when she posed for a group photo as the “sweetheart” of the Kappa Alpha Order fraternity, and was also engaged to marry one of its members.

“I was not politically active,” Allman said during a gathering of administrators and faculty in a small auditorium at Z. Smith Reynolds Library in April. “I was not engaged in discussions about diversity, nor involved in issues of social justice. In retrospect, I’m ashamed of that lack of awareness, but it’s true. I read applications and I meet new students, and I’m aware that there are a lot of students who become aware in their youth, and for others it just takes longer.”

Many black students at Wake Forest — who make up 9.4 percent of the student body — say there’s never a time on campus when they can avoid thinking about race.

“It seems like my blackness is something that other people need to figure out how to navigate in academic and social settings,” said Kate Pearson, a rising sophomore who came from New Jersey to study political science at Wake. “My blackness is something I have to wear on my sleeve, which is exhausting.”

‘A continuity of spirit’

Wake Forest is part of a troika of elite universities in North Carolina, alongside UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke, that play an outsized role in influencing the state’s politics, business, medicine and law. The three universities have produced US presidents, senators, governors and judges. Wake Forest’s alumni include Sen. Richard Burr and the late Sen. Jesse Helms, along with former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. UNC-Chapel Hill produced Gov. Roy Cooper and former Gov. Jim Hunt, along with US Reps. David Price and Virginia Foxx. Duke claims President Nixon and Trump policy advisor Stephen Miller, along with journalist Judy Woodruff.

Beyond being part of the storied “Tobacco Road” basketball rivalry as members of the NCAA Atlantic Coast Conference, the three universities are renowned research institutions that feed hospital systems and influence cultural discourse through highly regarded faculty.

In particular, UNC Chapel Hill — mythologized as a “light on the hill” — holds a reputation as an engine of progress for the state.

Terry Sanford, a former governor, observed in a 1990 interview archived by the Southern Oral History Program that by 1900, most of the state’s leaders came out of UNC-Chapel Hill.

“And I think Chapel Hill had that concept of how to make the world better as a function of the university,” Sanford said. “Now, I could also tie in some efforts of other universities. There are two or three great people at Wake Forest. Certainly academic freedom in the country got its greatest boost from Trinity College, which is now Duke. But of all these forces, Chapel Hill had to be the principal force, because the most people who were taking up positions of leadership went to Chapel Hill. And I think to have social change, you almost need a continuity of spirit that comes from a university, not necessarily from one person at a university, but from the university. And I think Chapel Hill has played that role, sometimes played it badly but sometimes played it extremely well.”

For many black students, who went from only a handful at UNC-Chapel Hill in the 1950s to less than 10 percent of the student body today — still far below African Americans’ 21.5-percent share of the state population — enrollment at these still predominantly white institutions represents access to resources at a steep psychological cost.

Growing up in North Carolina, Jerry J. Wilson watched his two eldest sisters attend predominantly white institutions in the UNC System and drop out. Another set of sisters, the third and fourth, attended historically black universities and graduated.

“When it was my turn, I got a strong nudge from my parents to consider a HBCU,” Wilson said. He chose Fayetteville State University, which offered him the best financial-aid package. Wilson is now a doctoral student at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Education.

“When I got here to Carolina, things were very different from Fayetteville State: programs, scholarships, study abroad and facilities,” Wilson said. “So much, so many more resources than I had access to at Fayetteville State. I remember being in awe, like, Wow.

“That’s why I go back to this notion of democratic equality, what it means for the flagship institutions to have all these resources, yet have this disparity when it comes to enrollment by race,” he continued. “Because the reality is it’s not just what you know, it’s also who you know, and what type of resources you have access to. It is the case that students at other universities may be receiving a wonderful education, but how well they’re able to take advantage of their opportunities is outside of their control. In terms of opportunities for research, we have Nobel laureates on the faculty at Chapel Hill. That means something for young people who are applying for other opportunities and are interested in a certain topic or need an introduction or a research apprenticeship.”

Roughly one out of 10 students at Wake Forest University, seen at commencement on Monday, are African American, compared to 21.5 percent of the state population. (photo by Jerry Cooper)

Aries Powell attended predominantly white K-12 schools in Delaware, but they weren’t prepared for the flavor and intensity of whiteness they found at Wake Forest.

“It’s pervasive, in-your face, violent whiteness,” said Powell, who graduated from Wake Forest on Monday and goes by they and them. “Wealthy, elite whiteness. I’m solidly middle class. I’d always gone to school with people making similar amounts of money…. I had a lab partner, and he was like, ‘I’m going to drop out.’ I’m like, ‘What?’ He said, ‘It’s no problem. My dad owns a potato chip company. I’ll just go work for him.’”

While Powell described Wake Forest as an “adversarial place to be” both academically and socially, they readily acknowledged several advantages: They received a full-ride scholarship, ducking what would otherwise be at least $200,000 of debt. The university paid for two study-abroad experiences, sending them to Cuba in their first year and Ghana in their third. And undergraduates with the requisite GPA or LSAT scores are automatically admitted into Wake Law.

Commitment to diversity?

Regardless of its status as a public university, UNC-Chapel Hill’s history of race tracks closely with that of Wake Forest. Like its counterpart at Wake Forest, UNC Libraries has presented clear evidence of slavery’s role in establishing the university. In UNC-Chapel Hill’s case, slaves literally built the facilities, as evidenced by Census records showing that contractors and subcontractors for the antebellum buildings owned slaves.

The first public university in the United States, UNC-Chapel Hill excluded blacks for the first 162 years of its existence. Pauli Murray, a mixed-race black woman whose slaveholding ancestors donated land to the university, chronicled in her classic memoir Proud Shoes about how she was denied admittance to UNC in 1938. She would go on to become the first African-American woman to become ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church.

When UNC-Chapel Hill finally did integrate, it would only be under pressure and haltingly. The university was forced by federal court order to admit five black students under the “separate-but-equal” doctrine in 1951 because the state did not fund equivalent medical and law programs at black institutions. Then, in 1955, UNC-Chapel Hill admitted three black students, all graduates of Durham’s Hillside High School, to its undergraduate program to comply with Brown v. Board of Education. Five years later, in 1960, there were still only four black freshmen.

The story UNC-Chapel Hill tells about its relationship with diversity is a flattering one. A page on the university website headlined “Black Enrollment” notes that there were only 113 black students in 1968, adding that “after a major recruitment initiative, 138 professional and 946 undergraduate students were enrolled in 1978. The university has become a national leader in this area.”

Yet the data on record with the National Center for Educational Statistics indicates black enrollment at UNC-Chapel Hill plateaued in the late 1990s, and then actually began to drop after 2010. Kate Luck, a spokesperson for the university told Triad City Beat that changes in federal reporting guidelines account for a drop from 10.8 percent to 9.3 percent between 2009 and 2010. But even accounting for the new reporting guidelines, the percentage of black freshmen entering UNC-Chapel Hill in 2018 had dropped to 8.6 percent.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Similarly, NC State University — the largest school in the UNC System, with a total enrollment of more than 33,000 — saw black enrollment top out at 10.4 percent in 2000 and fall to 7.2 percent by 2017.

Increasing diversity has been a longstanding commitment at UNC-Chapel Hill, along with other elite, predominantly white institutions. At UNC-Chapel Hill, the Chancellor’s Minority Affairs Review Committee declared in 2000 that diversity is “a fundamental prerequisite to both educational excellence and the university’s ability to serve all the people of the state.” A diversity plan released by the university reaffirmed its commitment in 2014.

Likewise, at Wake Forest, Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion José Villalba told TCB that “the drive is still on” to improve diversity.

In the late ’70s, as public institutions like UNC-Chapel Hill were making significant strides in increasing black enrollment, Wake Forest found itself under pressure to become more diverse. Herman Eure, who had been among the first two tenure-track black faculty members hired by Wake Forest, created the Office of Minority Affairs — the forerunner of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion — in 1978. The purpose of the office, according to a page on the university website was “to foster [the] success of [a] small number of black students.”

Martha Allman was a freshman that year. After graduating in 1982, Allman went to work as an admissions counselor at her alma mater. Through an African-American colleague, she came to know Eure.

“I still treasure Dr. Eure’s friendship and have trusted his wisdom for almost 40 years,” Allman said in April. “Even in 1982, the admissions office was charged with increasing diversity on campus, and steadily I became more and more convinced of the critical importance of that work.”

As undergraduate admissions director — a position she assumed in 2001 — Allman led the charge to institute test-optional admissions at the university in 2008 to reduce barriers to black and brown students, making Wake Forest the first Top 30 university, based on rankings published by US News & World Report, to do so. Under Allman’s leadership, the share of students of color in undergraduate programs has risen from 14.8 percent in 2007 to 22.9 percent in 2017.

During her second public apology, Allman boasted that “Wake Forest’s non-white student population has now grown to over 30 percent.” Katie Neal, a spokesperson for the university, said Allman’s figure takes into account international students, including a sizable cohort of students from China.

The share of African-American undergraduate students has barely budged, from 6.8 percent in 1990 to 7.5 percent in 2017, according to data on file with the National Center for Education Statistics. Higher numbers of students of color in graduate programs pushes African-American representation across all levels up to 9.4 percent — a figure that’s still well below African Americans’ 21.5-percent share of the state population, and 34.7-percent share of the population of Winston-Salem.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Nate French, who heads the Magnolia Scholars program to support first-generation students and formerly worked in the admissions office to recruit students from across North Carolina, said the reason African Americans remain under-represented at Wake Forest is fairly straightforward.

“It’s a poor K-12 preparation program,” he said. “We can’t recruit students if they’re not prepared to come out of high school. I think the report last year in Winston-Salem is that only 27 percent of African-Americans hit third-grade proficiency. That number’s not going to go up exponentially by the time they get to 12th grade.”

High-achieving students of color — or, for that matter, low-income or rural students — are highly sought-after by recruiters seeking to improve their diversity marks.

“I think all the schools — and I’ve been out on the road recruiting for Wake — you’re trying to beat the bushes to find students,” French said. “But if you find one or two or three — and this is red or yellow, black or white — if you find the kid that can get into Wake, they can get into Carolina, they can get into State. Everybody’s going for that student, so there’s a lot of competition there. It’s tough.”

Kate Luck, the UNC-Chapel Hill spokesperson said in an email that the university’s 8.6 percent share of African-American first-year students places it ahead of every other top 25 national public university in the US News & World Report’s ranking. Yet looking at students at all levels including graduate and undergraduate, UNC-Chapel Hill (8.5 percent) ranked behind University of Maryland (13.5 percent), Rutgers University (9.1 percent) and University of Georgia (9.0 percent) for African-American representation in 2017.

“Like many universities, the work toward a more diverse student body is ongoing,” she said.

Jerry J. Wilson, the doctoral student in education at UNC-Chapel Hill, worked in the office of undergraduate admissions for his first couple years as a graduate student.

“I don’t remember anyone while I was there in admissions talking about trying to get rid of the under-representation,” Wilson recalled. “Nobody was trying to make the enrollment of the university look more like the state.”

Even UNC-Chapel Hill’s modest diversity is under assault. A group called Students for Fair Admissions sued the university in 2014, claiming that the UNC’s consideration of the race of under-represented groups “equates to a penalty imposed upon white and Asian-American applicants.” The group has filed similar lawsuits against Harvard University and the University of Texas at Austin.

‘The thing that’s so hard is the consistency’

The emotional labor of being black at a predominantly white institution plays out in multiple ways.

Aries Powell cited as an example a historic simulation set in the Greenwich Village section of New York City in the 1910s and ’20s that took place in their first year. The scenario centered on labor and class oppression, but the white students repurposed it into a discourse on race. Powell, the only black student in the class, was the first to use the word “Negro,” wanting to be historically accurate, but they came to regret it. Their classmates seemed to relish tossing the word around at every opportunity.

“The white students ran wild with it,” Powell recalled. “I said, ‘Can we stop? This is a little much.’ The professor made me plead my case, and then put it to a vote.”

Beyond persistent everyday racism of the sort that Powell has experienced, overt and outrageous acts of racism are legion at Wake Forest. Those that have been reported in the news media in the past five years include a bucket of urine being placed outside the black Muslim chaplain’s office, an invitation to a white fraternity party where guests were encouraged to dress like performers in a rap video, white students running around campus yelling “n***er” on the night of Trump’s election, a white student calling her black resident advisor a “n***er,” and an Instagram post from a student calling for a wall to separate Wake Forest from Winston-Salem State University, an HBCU in the city.

“Everyone in your classes could be incredibly racist,” Powell said. “Your roommate could be incredibly racist. The thing that’s so hard is the consistency.”

For Jerry J. Wilson, being one of the few black graduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill means often feeling that his academic interests are devalued.

“For us in the school of education — for me and the other students of color — it’s trying to find scholarship with which we identify,” he said. “A lot of us prefer more critical work, work that challenges dominant narratives, work that aims to transform oppressive systems. There are few faculty in the school of education that take that approach.”

As an example of the skew created by under-representation of black students and faculty, Wilson cited a conference on school safety in which a police officer expressed the opinion that the school-to-prison pipeline was “fake news.”

“This is an education research conference put on by a school of education at a university,” Wilson said. “For that comment to go largely unchallenged when there is an abundance of research that shows the opposite — that the school-to-prison pipeline is a real thing, and black and brown kids are overly disciplined in ways that expose them to the criminal justice system; the evidence is clear — if we had more faculty of color, if we had more scholars who were working on research with a critical focus, not to say that these sorts of things wouldn’t happen, but there would be more people to push back and say, ‘That’s not what the research shows.’”

The support systems for students of color at predominantly white institutions are remarkably similar.

Wake Forest University undergraduates at commencement on Monday. (photo by Jerry Cooper)

All three universities have various cultural centers that provide respite and social opportunities for under-represented students — the Women’s Center, the LGBTQ Center, the Latinx Center and the Sonja Haynes Stone Cultural Center for Black Culture & History at UNC-Chapel Hill; the Women’s Center, the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity and the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture at Duke; the Women’s Center, the LGBTQ Center and the Intercultural Center at Wake Forest.

And as Nate French noted, all three universities have programs to support first-generation students: Wake Forest has the Magnolia Scholars, UNC-Chapel Hill has Carolina Firsts, and Duke has Duke LIFE.

Both Wake Forest’s Villalba and Gary Bennett, the vice provost for education at Duke, mentioned faculty-student relationships in response to inquiries about what their respective institutions are doing to support students of color.

Asked how they are responding to racism by white students, Villalba cited a “Living in Community” workshop, including discussions about “multicultural competence” and “micro-aggressions,” that every first-year student is required to attend at the culmination of orientation week.

In a statement to TCB, Bennett said, “We and our peers are constantly working to cultivate a climate in which free expression is encouraged, and one that is characterized by mutual respect, appreciation for difference, and inclusivity.”

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

‘This campus does not… care about black students’

In February, members of the Wake Forest University Anti-Racism Coalition took over a forum hosted by Villalba entitled “Creating Inclusive Climates at Wake Forest University, Past, Present and Future,” while calling attention to Martha Allman’s past association with the Confederate flag. But their concerns and demands went much further than the status of the dean of admissions or the Confederacy. They demanded a dedicated space for the Black Student Alliance, a “zero-tolerance policy” against acts of white supremacy, transparency in the campus bias reporting process, additional black counselors to support black students and the removal of monuments and building names that commemorate Confederates and eugenicists.

In addition to the two apologies by Allman, which received a lukewarm reception from students and faculty, administration responded by immediately dedicating the lounge at Kitchin Hall to the Black Student Alliance.

“We had to literally shut shit down to get that,” Powell said. “We had to make administration afraid of us…. This campus does not cater to or care about black students.”

Meanwhile, the university has pledged to review its bias incident reporting system — the university’s process for adjudicating racist acts — and President Nathan O. Hatch announced the launch of a President’s Commission on Race, Equity and Community, which will convene in September.

“I believe we need to be authentic and honest about our past, including our relationship to slavery and segregation,” Hatch said in a public email on May 13. “Facing these realities, however sobering, is essential if we are to build a genuinely pluralistic community moving forward.”

The Rev. Willard Bass, who graduated with the second class in the School of Divinity in 2003, credited the antiracist students with holding administration accountable.

“I’ve been really impressed with their courage and forthrightness around the issue of race and racism,” said Bass, who is the executive director of the Institute for Dismantling Racism in Winston-Salem. “I’m impressed with their ability to articulate issues, and their ability to identify the history of the university and call out the administration’s lack of response. If you don’t address things that happened in the past, how can you expect anything to change?”

While black students, faculty and alumni are broadly in agreement about the need to confront overt and institutional racism, increasing diversity at Wake Forest is not the first priority of the current crop of student activists.

“The stat is depressing and disgusting, but the fewer students of color, the better, as a matter of harm reduction,” Powell said.

While Powell said they are ultimately optimistic about Wake Forest’s future, they don’t believe that it’s fair to ask black students to come to a university where they will carry the burden of changing it for the better.

“This campus has the potential to be a great place for black students,” they said. “It will be. We are at the beginning of a long path. We are a long way from black students being safe and okay here. I don’t want to tell black students to be here to enlist them in my war. I understood that I was taking on this work when I came here.”

Meanwhile, at UNC-Chapel Hill, black students and faculty are pushing forward in the midst of uncertainty over the future of Silent Sam, with the UNC Board of Governors’ recent announcement that a decision over the fate of the Confederate monument will be delayed indefinitely.

“We spent half a million dollars protecting a Confederate monument,” said William Sturkey, an assistant professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill. “We do not have a historian of slavery at Carolina. One of the messages that conveys is that several hundred people who volunteered to fight for North Carolina when it left the United States are more important than the thousands of people who were slaves who were connected to the university, hereby privileging one race over another. That’s a choice we make in 2019.”

UNC-Chapel Hill is completely different from Wake Forest and Duke in one respect when it comes to addressing its history of white supremacy: “The university of the people” is hostage to the reactionary politics of state government.

“We claim to be a global leader; there’s no reason for any institute in the world to look at UNC as a model for how to deal with the troubling history of race,” Sturkey said.

“When the Silent Sam controversy happened, there were so many of us that were asked to speak all over the state and nation,” he continued. “The one place where our expertise has not been marshalled at all, it’s on our very own campus. They just formed this new commission to figure out what should be done with Silent Sam. We have one of the leading experts on Confederate history [Fitzhugh Brundage], and we choose not to use him. That would be the equivalent of forming a basketball team, and not choosing Roy Williams as the coach.”

Black students at both UNC-Chapel Hill and Wake said that their respective universities are supposed to be home, but often don’t feel like it.

Jerry Wilson, the doctoral student in education, recalled a 2015 town hall at UNC-Chapel Hill on race and inclusion at which Chancellor Carol Folt, who left to become the president of the University of Southern California earlier this year, said when she invited a guest to her house she wanted “to make them feel perfectly welcome.” Wilson wondered whether she was implying that students of color were guests on campus.

“One of the questions that has come to mind is this notion of Southern hospitality, and how that’s something that is a point of pride for Southerners to be so welcoming of guests,” Wilson said. “What does it mean to be seen as a guest, especially in your own home?”

Disclosure: The author of this article was employed by Wake Forest University in the fall of 2017 to lead an independent study.

Top universities ranked by African-American representation

Name, location, (rank by US News & World Report), % Af-Am, % students of color, (rank by % students of color) 

  1. Emory University, Atlanta (21) — 12.3%, 43.3% (15
  2. Vanderbilt University, Nashville (14) — 10.1%, 35.9% (25)
  3. Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore (10) — 10.0%, 43.8% (16)
  4. Duke University, Durham (8) — 9.5%, 40.3% (22)
  5. Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem (27) — 9.4%, 24.5% (32)
  6. Georgetown University, Washington DC (22) — 9.4%, 33.7% (26)
  7. Washington University, St. Louis (19) — 9.2%, 38.0% (24)
  8. Columbia University, New York (3) — 8.7%, 46.9% (12)
  9. UNC-Chapel Hill (30) — 8.5%, 33.2% (28)
  10. New York University (30) — 8.4%, 52.4% (8)
  11. Princeton University, Princeton, NJ (1) — 8.2%, 45.3% (13)
  12. University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (8) — 8.1%, 43.1% (18)
  13. University of Southern California, Los Angeles (22) — 7.9%, 56.0% (4)
  14. Brown University, Providence, RI (14) — 7.8%, 45.2% (14)
  15. University of Virginia, Charlottesville (25) — 7.3%, 32.1% (29)
  16. Cornell University, Ithaca, NY (16) — 7.2%, 48.6% (11)
  17. Yale University, New Haven, Ct. (3) — 7.2%, 43.6% (17)
  18. Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. (2) — 7.2%, 42.2% (20)
  19. Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill. (10) — 7.0%, 39.7% (23)
  20. Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH (12) — 6.8%, 40.8% (21)
  21. Rice University, Houston (16) — 6.7%, 51.4% (9)
  22. University of Chicago (3) — 6.2%, 42.6% (19)
  23. Stanford University, Stanford, Calif. (7) — 5.6%, 52.8% (7)
  24. Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh (25) — 5.6%, 54.1% (5)
  25. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor (27) — 5.2%, 31.9% (30)
  26. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass. (3) — 5.1%, 51.3% (10)
  27. Tufts University, Medford, Mass. (27) — 5.0%, 33.5% (27)
  28. UC-Los Angeles (19) — 4.1%, 64.8% (1)
  29. University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Ind. (18) — 4.1%, 25.2% (31)
  30. UC-Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, Calif. (30) — 2.6%, 60.7% (3)
  31. UC-Berkeley, Berkeley, Calif. (22) — 2.5%, 63.7% (2)
  32. California Institute of Technology, Pasadena (12) — 1.3%, 53.8% (6)

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

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