Wheaton College Conducts First-Ever Historical Race Review
A task force plans to deliver their preliminary findings to the board of trustees in May.
By Calista Kiper | Staff Writer
Nearly six months after President Ryken informed students about the creation of a task force to conduct a historical review of race at Wheaton College, little information has been made public even as students eagerly await the group’s findings.
The College’s board of trustees commissioned and appointed the task force, which is co-chaired by Trustee Dale Wong and Professor of Library Science Katherine Graber. Other task force members include two trustees, four faculty members, one staff member, two alumni, undergraduate student Graciee Johnson and graduate student Justine Stewart.
According to Ryken’s Oct. 15 email announcing the review, the task force’s research will cover 140 years of the College’s history, from Wheaton’s founding in 1860 up to 2000. In the same email, Ryken wrote that the trustees “wish to understand the impact of past events on present realities, particularly the experience of ethnic minorities.”
“Our primary goal is to clarify what we already know [about the history of race at Wheaton],” said Graber in an October interview. “Another goal would be to be able to point to a body of knowledge regarding Wheaton’s history and legacy of race relations on campus.”
The group held their first meeting on Oct. 28, but a Record reporter was not permitted to attend since “task meetings are not open to the general public or media,” said Wong in an email. Only Wong and Graber were allowed to speak to the Record on behalf of the task force and explain the task force’s goals.
Reporters have not been allowed in the nine subsequent meetings, and students interested in the task force proceedings are also not permitted to attend. Dontay Givens, a junior English major, is part of a group of William Osborne Society and Asian American Christian Collaborative students who met with the administration and Ryken to discuss the review. He expressed frustration with the task force’s confidential proceedings.
“This limited communication is obviously negative,” said Givens. “Students, staff, faculty and alumni should be able to provide comments that alter the course of the investigation, and force the committee to do a thorough and holistic search. Transparency and honesty should be at the crux of this investigation, and the school is doing neither.”
Graber said privacy was essential to facilitating discussion among task force members.
“Meetings are closed to outsiders so that the work there can be conducted without distraction and all the members feel free to participate and add their perspectives,” said Graber in an email. “We have provided updates on the task force process to the Faculty Business Meeting and Faculty Council several times, and we have invited outside guests to speak to the task force on specific topics.”
Wheaton follows in the footsteps of other schools reckoning with a complex history with race. In 2003, Brown University appointed a committee to investigate its history with regard to race and slavery. In 2005, Emory University sponsored a decade-long Transforming Community Projects program that held a capstone conference in 2011 investigating the effects of slavery on higher education in the United States. In 2019, Georgetown University announced it would commit at least $400,000 annually to fund community projects to support the descendants of enslaved people that worked at the school. On April 26, Harvard University released a report detailing the school’s historic connections to the slave trade and committed $100 million to redress this legacy.
The task force’s work involves investigating programs, policies and practices at Wheaton using the College’s archives as well as the work of scholars. Graber said they are also conducting interviews with members of the campus community and consulting with a research assistant hired from outside the College.
“When we want to know something, we’ll point the researcher in the right direction and ask specific questions so he or she can look for particular details,” Graber said.
Faculty and staff first heard of the historical review on May 26 of last year, after President Ryken sent out an email announcing that the board of trustees had asked him to prepare a “Review of the History of Wheaton College with Respect to Race Relations and the Gospel.”
Although Wheaton College was founded by abolitionist Jonathan Blanchard, was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and was one of the first schools in Illinois to admit and graduate Black students, the school’s record of welcoming minority students to campus in the 20th century has come under scrutiny in recent years.
In an email exchange with Ryken after the review was announced to students, Ryken wrote that the review was “inspired in part by the campus conversations” surrounding a plaque in Edman Chapel. The 1957 plaque, which honored slain missionaries Jim Elliot and Ed McCulley, had referred to the Waorani people that killed them as “savage indians.” After concerns from students about the wording, the plaque was rewritten by a College-appointed task force to refer to the Waorani as a “feared indigineous people.”
Ryken also cited the Buswell Library petition — which called for the removal of former president J. Oliver Buswell’s name from the library — as an inspiration for the race review. Daniel Ju ‘21, last year’s student body vice president, met with Ryken to discuss a historical race review on Feb. 11, 2021 after the petition had circulated among students earlier that year.
According to Ju, the petition effort stemmed from the initiative of students from the William Osborne Society. These students were conducting research on notable Black alumni inside Wheaton’s archives but found that no Black students were enrolled under President J. Oliver Buswell’s term, from 1926 to 1940.
“It is manifestly clear [that] there was a de facto policy of not enrolling Black students,” Ju said.
The students also found a letter from 1939 in which Buswell appeared to equivocate about whether to admit a prospective Black student named Rachel Boone. “I have no race prejudice in my heart,” Buswell wrote in the letter to trustee Hugo Wurdak. “However, I have felt that for a small Christian school where the social contacts are so close, it would be better to avoid coeducation of the races.” He continued, “I am trying to avoid the issue while quietly advising colored applicants to go elsewhere.”
Buswell ultimately decided to admit Boone, but the delay meant that Boone had already decided to attend a different university.
These archival findings prompted a coalition of minority student groups, including the William Osborne Society and the Asian-American Christian Collaborative, to write a petition that called for the renaming of Buswell Library in order to “actively work against memorializing and celebrating the legacy of segregation, racism and white supremacy” at the College.
Andrew Luhmann, an assistant professor of geology, says he hopes the race review will result in practical steps such as renaming the library.
“We need to send the message that we value and need the perspectives and experiences of our Black sisters and brothers,” said Luhmann. “Changing the name of the library to a name that is fully supported by our Black community is only a first step and one that should have been made long ago, but hopefully when it is made, it is symbolic of additional substantive changes that show our Black brothers and sisters that we truly care.”
Givens, one of the William Osborne Society students who conducted the initial research in the archives, described the thought process for the drafters of the petition.
“For us it just seemed contradictory that you have a building named after Blanchard, who’s an abolitionist, and then his diametric opposite at the library,” said Givens. “We hope that with the historical review Wheaton is able to see that contradiction.”
Luhmann also noted the contradiction. “Buswell was a segregationist, and this is not a part of Wheaton’s history that we should venerate,” he said. “It is appalling that Black faculty, staff, and students have to walk by or into a building today that is named in honor of someone who wrote that they should not be here.”
After the petition began to spread among students, Ryken contacted Givens and the other drafters. Givens said he and other students involved with the Office of Multicultural Development discussed their concerns about the library’s name and their proposed solutions in multiple in-person meetings with Ryken.
“One of the things that we really met in the middle on was a historical review of some kind,” said Givens. “We wanted to focus particularly on Buswell’s tenure, but Wheaton is going to be Wheaton and they wanted to look at the whole history.”
In an email to the drafters of the Buswell petition, Ryken told the students that he had already proposed an examination of Wheaton’s race-related history to the board of trustees in a meeting on Jan. 20, 2021.
Though some students saw the review as a win, others expressed concerns that the announcement of the task force could delay action on the Buswell Library petition.
“It doesn’t make sense to me why the trustees cannot and have not taken action on the knowledge [about Buswell] that is already established,” said Ju. “I am concerned that this [institutional historical race review] will be used to buy them time.”
Givens also expressed concerns about the task force’s research methods, arguing members need to interpret their historical findings with an “eye for criticality.”
“It defeats the whole purpose if you’re just going to say it was a product of the time,” said Givens. “There has to be an eye for criticality without it being overshadowed by charity.”
Hayden Sledge, student body president of the 2021-2022 school year, said that she and vice president Mason Laney were asked to nominate student volunteers for the task force.
“We didn’t receive a whole lot of information, they just asked for nominations,” she said. After speaking with the board, Sledge and Laney selected three candidates and eventually narrowed it down to junior business economics major Graciee Johnson.
“I heard her heart for minorities on campus, so I thought she’d be a wonderful asset,” Sledge said.
A Dec. 1 email from Graber and Wong encouraged students to submit their “questions, ideas, perspectives, or constructive comments” for the task force to consider at HRTF@wheaton.edu. The task force will report their preliminary findings to the board of trustees in May, but will not submit a complete report because of the amount of research that still remains to be conducted.
Once the full report is finished, Graber said the board will release the findings to the campus community at a later date.