Dean of admissions at Wake apologizes for Confederate flag photo

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Wake Forest University Dean of Admissions Martha Blevins posed in a photograph with the Confederate flag as a student in 1982. (courtesy photo)

The dean of admissions at Wake Forest University has apologized for appearing in a photograph with the Confederate flag.

A photograph in the 1982 edition of the Wake Forest University yearbook The Howler shows Blevins standing front and center in a group photograph with members of the Kappa Alpha Order with a large Confederate flag. The fraternity venerates Confederate general Robert E. Lee as its “spiritual founder.”

Blevins’ future husband, Joe Allman, is also pictured in the photo and is listed as a member of Kappa Alpha. Blevins is listed as a member of the Fideles sorority in the same yearbook.

On Thursday evening, Wake Forest students raised concerns about Allman posing with the flag in the yearbook photo during a community forum. Entitled “Creating Inclusive Climates at Wake Forest University, Past, Present and Future,” the forum was moderated by Chief Diversity Officer José Villalba and featured Vice President for Campus Life Penny Rue, among other panelists.

Aries Powell, a senior who attended the forum, said ongoing racial disparities experienced by students of color prompted a group of students to raise the issue of Allman’s appearance in the photo with the Confederate flag.

“I think it is being framed that we are discontented with the fact that this woman posed in front of a Confederate flag 30 to 40 years ago,” they said. “That is an issue, but it’s really not our main concern. Our main concern is that black students — the experience for them hasn’t changed in 30 to 40 years since Martha stood with the Confederate flag.

“When Donald Trump was elected, white Trump supporters were running up and down the halls of freshman dorms yelling racial and homophobic slurs,” they added. “I was here three years ago as a black student when [fraternities held] ‘fried chicken and 40s parties.’ I’ve been here for ‘dress like a rapper’ parties and blackface parties.”

The Wake Forest University chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America called for Allman’s resignation.

“Wake Forest University was founded using slave labor, it has constantly denied black students the same welcome, protection and inclusivity that it extends to white students, and it is currently engaged in the gentrification of downtown Winston-Salem and the displacement of the few remaining black communities in our city,” the chapter posted on its Facebook page on Thursday evening. “Enough is enough.”

Martha Blevins in 1982

Allman publicly apologized in an email to students, faculty and staff after the forum “to acknowledge and apologize for perpetuating harm.”

“The flag was a symbol of pain and racism then just as it is now, and I understand that much differently in 2019 than I did in 1982,” she said.

Allman went on to say: “Thirty-seven years of life, experiences, relationships and education have made a difference in my way of understanding the world and my ability to empathize with those who are different from me. Throughout my career in admissions, one of my goals has been to create a more diverse and inclusive Wake Forest. It is my hope that I will be judged by my professional dedication to Wake Forest, my faith and civic involvement, and by my future work with the Wake Forest community.”

Katie Neal, the assistant vice president for news and communications, said Allman is not commenting beyond her apology at this time.

The university has credited Allman with tripling applications to more than 14,000 per year since she assumed the position of dean of undergraduate admissions in 2001. During that time she also chaired a subcommittee of the Campus Climate Deliberative Dialogue and helped design the Porter Byrum Welcome Center.

In September, the university announced Allman’s appointment as senior assistant provost and dean of university integration, effective July 1, 2019.

“As undergraduate admissions dean for nearly two decades, Dean Allman developed extensive knowledge of our students and campus, distinctively enabling her to integrate the services and programs that connect — and transcend — academic disciplines and support offices,” Provost Rogan Kersh said in a September 2018 email to the campus community. “Her longstanding relationships across our community with students, faculty, administrators, alumni, parents and trustees are invaluable in advancing this essential work.”

Martha Blevins Allman and her husband, Joe, attend Green Street United Methodist Church, a congregation with a reputation for progressive activism in Winston-Salem.

“The photo doesn’t reflect her life since that time, which has been on a steady trajectory towards racial justice,” the Rev. Kelly Carpenter said. “It’s sad that that’s the way it’s being portrayed. That’s not the Martha we know today.”

Carpenter noted that Joe Allman, who is a lawyer, volunteered his time to incorporate the Shalom Project, an anti-poverty agency under the church’s auspices. Martha Blevins Allman has raised thousands of dollars for the agency through Unbroken Circle, a string band. Allman plays the autoharp in the band, which includes Wake Forest students and alumni. The band raised more than $28,000 through a benefit concert — the eight to date — about two weeks ago, according to a university release.

“Joe and Martha are members of this church; they raised both of their daughters in the church,” Carpenter said. “They came because of diversity, compassion and justice.”

Members of the predominantly white congregation struggle with overcoming white supremacy, Carpenter said. During the recent Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday, the church opened its pulpit to the Rev. Tembilla Covington, who is the chair of the Winston-Salem Minister’s Conference. A notice for the same service on the church’s website includes an “anti-racism team Sunday school.”

“Their commitment to the vision of racial justice is as strong as anyone’s,” Carpenter said of the Allmans. “You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in this congregation who would question that.”

Many students of color at Wake Forest University say they are not afforded the same grace that is apparently being extended to Martha Blevins Allman.

Donnecia Brown, a second-year divinity student, said she was terminated from a university position advocating for victims of sexual abuse and intimate partner violence because she argued with a white ER doctor. Brown said she was uniquely qualified for the job as a victim of rape by a white supremacist.

“When I saw this photo of this woman who is the provost, and she sends an email saying she wants to be judged by her work now, I have to ask: Where was the same empathy towards me?” Brown said. “There’s grave disparities in the treatment of students of color and employees of color.”

Brown and Powell said they are tired of carrying the burden of constantly having to pressure Wake Forest to live up to its ideals of diversity and inclusion at the expense of their own mental health.

“It’s not our job to make sure that this university is a hospitable place for us,” Powell said. “We pay to come here. We get good grades so that your university can continue to be in the top 30. Every time we speak out, we risk our lives in ways that wealthy, white students do not.”

Brown added, “There’s still black bodies on the campus that are dealing with institutionalized trauma that causes us to compromise our mental well-being. We’re having to show up for forums as if we don’t have midterms to study for. But if we don’t fight, nobody else is going to fight for us.”

Brown said it can be difficult for black students to simultaneously pursue academic excellence and stand up against unfair treatment.

“I’m also afraid that me speaking out will trigger my PTSD,” Brown said. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to stay in school. I guarantee that Martha does not have PTSD from standing in front of the flag. The PTSD and mental anguish that I have from advocating for people of color means I may not be able to graduate, while she gets to apologize and keep her job. That’s not okay.”

Disclosure: The author of this article led a class at Wake Forest University in the fall of 2017 as an adjunct faculty member.

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