Three weeks after the release of Wheaton’s Historical Review Task Force report to all students, faculty and staff on Sept. 14, many students are still buzzing about the report’s findings. Some students said they’re grateful for the report and believe the task force effectively dealt with the college’s history with regards to race. Others are hurting and confused, wondering if they belong at Wheaton as a racial minority.
The 122-page report details the racial history of the college from 1860 to 2000, chronicling administration policies and campus attitudes influenced by race over the college’s history. A task force of faculty members, college trustees, students, and archivists put together research and interviews to trace the college’s history with a focus on the integration of students, faculty and staff from minority backgrounds. The report included certain commitments from the Board of Trustees in light of the report’s findings, including renaming the library, formerly named for former President J. Oliver Buswell, after years of controversy. The report revealed evidence of Buswell’s hesitancy to enroll Black students during his tenure at Wheaton in the mid-twentieth century.
Students asked task force representatives questions at two separate town halls on Sept. 15, in Coray Alumni Gymnasium and Sept. 21 in Meyer Science Center.
Kat Lewis, a Black first-year education major, was not expecting a 122-page race report about the college she’d carefully selected to be published within weeks of arriving on campus. After a busy week of studying, Lewis was catching up on sleep with a nap in the Office of Multicultural Development (OMD), dreaming of potentially starting up a fashion club. Then the race report was released.
She initially ignored the email.
“I get so many emails from Wheaton, so I don’t think I even skimmed it at first,” she said.
But later in the afternoon, she stopped by the Record’s open house, where some of her friends were discussing the report. They decided to sit and read through it together. Since that initial conversation, she’s spent hours discussing the report’s findings with friends and Black student mentors. It’s been a difficult start to her freshman year.
“It’s very isolating, especially as a Black person on campus,” she said. “There’s just 67 of us.”
In general, Lewis said she hasn’t heard many students talking about it, outside of the OMD. She said she sometimes worries the report has been pushed under the rug. But the findings haven’t made her rethink her decision to attend Wheaton College. In fact, it has solidified her commitment to stay.
“I want to help the girls who come after me, simply because I’m having such a hard time right now,” she said.
Lewis said she hopes to make her voice heard on campus, letting people know that racism, past and present, still affects people today. Her mother, who graduated from Wheaton in 1991, remembers going on a mission trip in the south and being told that she was welcome to go to the black church down the street when she tried to go to a white church. The church members eventually “relented” because she was with a mission team of mostly white students.
After the report’s release, Lewis noticed many people posting about the report on Instagram, and saw a post on an unofficial Wheaton forum wall page, asking why Wheaton decided to talk about the problem at all, saying that the issue of race wasn’t that serious and students need to get over it. After arguments broke out in the comments, the post was taken down. But just seeing the sentiment expressed cut straight to the core for Lewis.
“Just to see the words, ‘Yeah, this doesn’t really matter anymore,’ doesn’t really make sense to me,” she said, with tears in her eyes. “Racism has recently affected people.”
Josh Kannard, who grew up as a missionary kid, said he believes that the race review highlighted some significant problems in Wheaton’s history, but believes some grace should be extended.
“Buswell has errors, but he also did things to further God’s kingdom,” said Kannard, a sophomore studying integrated philosophy with Bible and theology. “Those mistakes were big mistakes so I can see why his name was removed from the library. Those errors also can be a testament to God’s grace to humans even in the church for those who cave to social pressures. I’m trying to stay moderate on it.”
Abbs Terpstra, a junior anthropology major, began reading the report within the hour it was released. But she was surprised with the way it was released without any warning.
“I read it pretty much within the hour because I check my email religiously,” said Terpstra. “It was interesting, I hadn’t heard any talk about it before the mass email chain.”
Growing up with missionary parents in Mozambique, Terpstra, who describes herself as white, wasn’t used to how race affected American life and how it was discussed in the public sphere.
“While I’m still assimilating to U.S. standards on race, it’s refreshing to see a religious institution take ownership and accountability over past actions, especially regarding a topic that most people find uncomfortable or threatening to their institution,” she said. “And to be so forward with it, even after all these years.”
For Ashley Robles, a sophomore education major, the report stirred up many emotions regarding her experience as a Latina student at Wheaton. She said it’s hard for her to find the balance between not being bitter and wanting to be an activist for people of color.
“I feel like I don’t want to get into it and have to pick a side,” she said.
Robles was also disturbed by the same Instagram post that Lewis saw, and views it as emblematic of a larger, apathetic response by the student body.
“I get it’s funny and a joke, but at the same time, I feel like that’s been the response from the student body,” she said. “As a part of one of the smallest populations on campus, as Hispanic, it’s frustrating at times.”
For Robles, the struggle to know where she fits in the Wheaton community started well before the release of the Sept. 14 report. She said she has noticed it’s hard for minorities to make friends on campus and most of the time students of color feel pressured to make jokes at the expense of their ethnicity in order to fit in.
“When I make Cinco de Mayo jokes, that’s when everyone starts dying of laughter,” she said.
On Sept. 15, the annual chapel led by Unidad Cristiana, the college’s Hispanic and Latino/a student group, which kicks off Hispanic Heritage Month, was rescheduled to Oct. 6 and replaced by a closed chapel session titled, “A Family Conversation.”
Matthew Mederos, a junior communications major who describes himself as Cuban-Puerto Rican and Hispanic, said he has also struggled with his Latino identity while at Wheaton. He grew up in Miami, Florida, which is almost 73% Hispanic.
“While I’m American, I didn’t grow up as the minority and didn’t realize how big of a difference that was from the rest of America until I came to Wheaton,” he said.
Mederos quickly discovered that he was white-passing, meaning some people don’t realize he’s Hispanic. As a result, he’s often found himself spending time around friends who feel free to vocalize their opinions about race relations in the U.S.
“They feel comfortable saying their opinions without fear of being seen as racist,” he said.
Because of his ability to blend in with both white and non-white students, Mederos said he considers himself very familiar with both perspectives on the HRTF report. He’s proud, he said, to be on a campus where despite differences in opinion, the community has been able to grapple with the findings of the report without much controversy or conflict.
Reactions of Members of the Task Force
Donghyuk Lee ‘23 was a senior business and economics major when he joined the Task Force as a student representative in Oct. 2022. Then-executive vice president of community diversity in Student Government, he was asked to join the Task Force when Grace Johnson ‘23 stepped down. Because he joined a year later than everyone else, Lee’s main goal was to look over what was already written and edit and discuss the main points.
“As a student, I was able to provide that voice and opinions that the students have and help them adjust the document so it would be better received by the students,” he said.
He wasn’t surprised by much of the HRTF report. He added that many people of color on campus were familiar with some of the history of race relations at Wheaton, even before the task force was announced. He was surprised that Wheaton took on the HRTF in the first place.
“It made me see Wheaton in a better light,” he said.
Lee, who is Korean American, said one of his biggest takeaways from the report was reading about the experience of students of color before him, many of whom had to endure reticence to mixed-race dating as well as unofficial discriminatory admissions policies.
“I’m in a much better place compared to them,” he said. “And they fought for Wheaton because they loved the institution. Rather than hating Wheaton, it made me love Wheaton a little bit more.”
He added that his biggest fear is that the report would be irrelevant to students. He believes the problems outlined in the report cannot be solved if they aren’t known.
“Yes, this is a sin committed by the institution in the past, but because it was the institution that did it, it is this institution’s responsibility to repent and acknowledge these sins,” Lee said.
Justine Stewart, Psy. D. ‘23, joined the task force halfway through her graduate program. Stewart had her first experience with a university’s racial history as an undergraduate student at Brown University, where she enrolled soon after the release of their Slavery and Justice Report in 2006.
“At Brown, I learned that critiquing an institution for its history was an act of love,” Stewart said. “When I was invited to Wheaton College’s task force, many milestones later, I welcomed the chance to love Wheaton College by interacting with its history.”
Stewart said she also hopes students wrestle well with the document. She hopes students read the whole report so its facts can form a communal truth and “we can richly debate the report’s implications.”
For students overwhelmed by the sheer size of the document, she encourages students to consume the report in bits and pieces with friends.
“It took the task force years to condense 120 years into a 100-page document,” she said. “It also took me years to process Wheaton’s history and I did so with the support of all the task force members.”
Katherine Graber, professor of library science, served as co-chair of the task force with trustee Dale Wong. Graber emphasized that the review itself is still not a complete history.
“We hope and expect that at some point, this report will be expanded, that there will be other stories and there will be other things that we learn about ourselves as a community,” she said.
She said she hopes students play a role in adding to the report and furthering a more complete history.
“I would love for students to get invested in their archives that are here in this building (Billy Graham Hall), and to think about other research opportunities that the report didn’t cover,” she said. “There’s no such thing as a complete history.”