Wheaton’s Lost Legacy of Black Alumni

By Calista Kiper Documents suggest that in the 1930s, Wheaton stonewalled the admission of a talented Black student because of her race. For students and faculty of color, the effects can still be felt today.

Dr. Rachel Boone Keith with her husband and President Bill Clinton. Photo Credit: Michigan Chronicle.

Rachel Boone Keith could have been one of Wheaton’s most notable Black alumni. The accomplished doctor — who was publicly recognized in the U.S. Congress as a “wonderful person and physician” upon her death in 2007 — originally applied to Wheaton College for her undergraduate studies in 1939. 

But the question of whether to admit a Black student incited prolonged controversy among the administration of then-President J. Oliver Buswell, and by the time Buswell reluctantly agreed to admit Boone, it was too late. Boone had already entered Houghton College in New York, where she was the only African-American student and graduated second in her class at the age of nineteen.

A casual glance at Wheaton’s most well-known alumni reveals mainly white faces, such as Billy Graham and Jim Elliot. The most remembered of Wheaton’s Black alumni are the early trailblazers: Mary Barker, who in 1857 became the first African-American to attend the college, Edward Sellers, Wheaton’s first known graduate of color, and William Osbourne, who fought in the Civil War in Alabama and went on to pastor churches across the country.

Despite its abolitionist beginnings and the College’s recent overtures toward greater diversity and inclusion, Wheaton’s historical relationship with racial minorities still gives cause for lament. Few Black students attended the school in the early 20th century, and a legacy of Black alumni at Wheaton was lost that still impacts Black students today. 

Christin Fort ‘10, an assistant professor of psychology, specializes in integrating clinical psychology and theology. She reflected on the dearth of Black alumni and its effects on the college. 

“Part of what I teach is the importance of lament,” Fort said. “I think it’s really important for us to acknowledge loss, and Wheaton struggles to make space for a robust and comprehensive acknowledgement of where and how we have erred, and when and how we might make noteworthy amends. This communal difficulty is especially challenging when we consider the loss of gifted, remarkable, and very qualified racialized minority women and men.”

Boone’s Application Sparks Debate

Born in 1924 to two medical missionaries in Liberia, a country in West Africa, Boone moved to Virginia at age three. She graduated from high school at thirteen and prepared to begin her university studies in 1939. That year, she was recommended to Wheaton College by Reverend W. Wyeth Willard, founder and director of Camp Good News in Forestdale, Mass. Willard would become Wheaton’s director of evangelism and assistant to the president in 1946. 

At the time of Boone’s application, the College was led by J. Oliver Buswell, who served as president from 1926 to 1940. 

Although Wheaton was founded by the abolitionist Jonathan Blanchard, by Buswell’s tenure the number of students of color had decreased significantly. According to a Record story about the history of race at Wheaton and an article published in the Illinois State Historical Society’s journal, Herbert Oliver’s attendance in the 1940s marked the first time a Black student had graduated from Wheaton since the 1920s. After graduating from Wheaton, Oliver obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theology at Westminster Theological Seminary before becoming an activist in Birmingham, Ala. during the Civil Rights Movement.

A 1939 letter from President Buswell to Trustee Wurdak asking for Wurdak's advice about admitting Black students. Access to archives given by Daniel Ju.

In a letter to trustee Hugo Wurdak on May 17, 1939, Buswell said, “Some years ago you spoke to me about Wheaton admitting colored students. At that time we had no colored students in the College.” This lack of Black students was apparently encouraged by Buswell, who stated that he had “advised colored students to go to Lincoln Institute” instead, which was an all-Black college in Kentucky.

Boone’s application ignited a flurry of correspondence as Buswell wrestled with whether to admit her to the college. Documents found in the Buswell Library Archives and Special Collections record Buswell’s thoughts about Boone’s application. The minutes from a meeting on March 14, 1939 with the College’s executive council — made up of Enoch Dryness, George Kirk, Wallace Emerson and Buswell himself — state that Buswell “reported on Reverend Willard’s letter concerning the admission of a colored student, Miss Rachel Boone… He expressed the feeling that social problems were such that we could not provide for colored students on the Wheaton campus.” While Buswell “did not wish to go on record as saying that the college did not accept colored students,” subsequent documents shed light on his views. 

In a letter to trustee Hugo Wurdak on May 17, 1939, Buswell appeared to still be debating whether to admit Boone. 

“I have no race prejudice in my heart,” Buswell wrote. “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. I have advised colored students to go to Lincoln Institute, Lincoln Ridge, Kentucky… I am trying to avoid the issue while quietly advising colored applicants to go elsewhere.”

A subsequent letter revealed Buswell’s anxiety on the topic. “I am trying to perform a difficult task,” he wrote to Wurdak just a week later, on May 25. “I really stand in great need of a reply to my letter of May seventeenth.”

Wurdak responded with his advice on June 2. “While I have absolutely no prejudice against colored students and for my part would be willing that they should be admitted into the college, at the same time I do not think it would be wise to bring up this matter at the time,” Wurdak wrote. “It would be my counsel to keep out of all controversies, as far as possible, even at the sacrifice of strong convictions.”

Wurdak told Buswell in an additional letter on June 6 that he agreed fully “with suggestion of letting the colored students down easily, by advising them to find a school elsewhere.”

Despite Wurdak’s recommendation that Buswell continue to dissuade Black students from attending Wheaton, the president noted what he perceived to be a shift in the trustee’s opinion. In a June 5 memo to Professor Enock Dyrness, who was the director of admissions and registrar at the time, Buswell said this change played a role in his ultimate decision to admit Boone.

“Mr. Wurdak,” Buswell wrote, “is the only one connected to the College who has ever objected to our having colored students in a definite way. Evidently now he has a different point of view… I suggest therefore that you admit the colored girl recommended by Rev. Willard of Newark, but I suggest you keep the matter as quiet as possible.”

A 1939 response letter from Wurdak to Buswell. Access to archives given by Daniel Ju.

Despite recommending Boone for admission, Buswell still had reservations, adding in his memo to Dyrness: “As you know, I have been trying to dodge this issue. I cannot see that any moral principle is involved. I am inclined to think that it would be better in a practical way if colored people would go to their own colored schools.”

The issue was resolved for Buswell when he learned that Boone had enrolled at Houghton College in New York and that “her aunt very well-satisfied with the prospects,” as he wrote to Willard on June 15. Buswell continued, “I think, therefore, it would be unwise for us to re-open the case.”

Upon graduating from Houghton College in 1943, Boone went on to receive a postgraduate degree from the Boston University School of Medicine in 1949. There, she achieved the highest score recorded up to that date on a medical school test. She went on to become a private physician before joining the staff of Detroit Medical Hospital in 1954. From 1986 to 1993, she served on the Michigan Board of Medicine. 

Boone married Damon Keith, a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in 1953. They had three daughters.

The two were once invited to dinner with Bill and Hilary Clinton at the White House. Upon her death in 2007, Boone was recognized by Michigan Representative John Conyers on the floor of the House in Washington as “a wonderful person and physician” and “a very fine lady indeed.” The two became friends through Boone’s husband, Keith, and had known each other for over 40 years.

Current Students, Staff and Faculty Reflect on a Lost Legacy

Boone’s story is an example of Wheaton’s lost legacy of Black alumni, a situation which impacts current students of color who search for representation and mentors in their fields. 

When Black women are left out, Fort says, we “shrink our own pool.” According to Fort, only one African-American woman of slave descent has received tenure in all of Wheaton’s history. “Part of what we did with Rachel is we lost the opportunity to recruit who we knew shared our faith and our values,” said Fort.

Prominent Black alumni in Wheaton’s STEM department include Dawn Wright ‘83, who studied geology at Wheaton and went on to receive an M.S. in oceanography from Texas A&M and a Ph.D. in physical geography and marine geology from UC-Santa Barbara. The Alumni Association’s Board of Directors also includes two Black alumni, Priscilla Barclay Kibler ‘12, an associate director at the Christian youth ministry Young Life, and Jerard Woods ’12, a compliance officer at Brookstone Capital Management.

But many female students of color say they struggle to find and connect with Black alumni in their fields. 

“Right now I’m looking for internships and I’m looking for people to connect with, but everyone I’ve been referred to is white,” said Naomi Bunker, a junior Applied Health Science major on the pre-med track. Bunker, who is from Minneapolis, said she was pointed to one Black woman who was in engineering, not medicine. “It was like they referred her to me just to make me feel better.”

If Boone had attended Wheaton, Bunker said that Boone would have been an inspiring example of a successful Black alumni in the medical field. “Having someone to look up to who would have possibly been in that role is just a missed opportunity,” said Bunker. 

Bunker said there is little representation of Black students in her classes, citing a moment where she was mistaken for another Black woman in the classroom. “Situations like that remind you that you are one of the only ones,” she said. 

Within a challenging major, representation encourages Bunker, even if it’s hard to find on campus. “The reminder that there are other Black women that have gone before me is something that constantly keeps me going,” said Bunker. “That’s not something I find at Wheaton, but I find it on social media.”

Ealexis Hester, a Spanish and biology double major on the pre-med track, said she feels she has to work “ten times harder” than white peers to gain recognition. “A lot of students here have family ties or friends ,” she said. “But for minority students, we don’t have that opportunity to say we just casually know doctors. It makes you think, ‘I have to do so much more just so I can get the same opportunities as my white peers.’”

As the only Black woman in most of her classes, Hester says, “It feels like what the class learned would be different if I weren’t in the mix. The conversation would go a different way if I wasn’t here.” 

In one of Hester’s classes, they watched a movie about Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cells were taken without her knowledge and have been used in lab experiments for more than 60 years. Hester said she was weeping in the back of the classroom, but when it came time to discuss the film, other students discussed the scientific issues and “ignored the elephant in the room, even when the professor was steering the conversation towards justice”.

Later, the professor apologized to Hester for showing such a heavy movie. “That was the first time I’d had anyone say, ‘We’re sorry for this, I didn’t realize how this could have affected you as a student,’” Hester said. “That was the first time I felt seen as a Black student in the science department, not as just another student.”

Director of Student Involvement Crystal Cartwright offered encouragement to female students of color who might feel particularly discouraged by the lack of representation among Wheaton’s alumni. 

“I want women of color to understand that they belong,” Cartwright said. “You do not need an invitation to be a part of the conversation and to have a seat at the proverbial table. You are brilliant and beautiful and have so much to offer. When there is not someone who has gone before you, it does not have to be a deficiency. It can be an opportunity for you to be the first and then open doors for the women coming behind you.”

The College has recently attempted to investigate and address its complicated racial history. A College-appointed task force is currently conducting a historical review related to race, with their preliminary findings set to be reported to the board of trustees in May. In an email announcing the creation of the task force, President Ryken clarified the College’s goals for the review.

“Our hope is that this collaborative study will clarify what we know already, while also exploring what more we ought to know, about campus race relations from 1860 to 2000,” said Ryken. “Through this review, the Trustees wish to understand the impact of past events on present realities, particularly the experience of ethnic minorities. They also hope to identify ways to make this history more readily accessible to all College constituencies.”

Fort says Wheaton must recognize and acknowledge its lack of Black alumni, and strive to do better in the future.

“Sometimes in institutions where we forget our past or are always thinking individualistically, we wind up trailblazing the same path over again,” Fort said. “An institution needs to be able to think long-term, think about their legacy and what it means to create and sustain the trail that’s already been formed.”

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