Wake Forest University President Nathan Hatch apologized for the school’s historical connection with slavery in a speech Thursday during the university’s Founders’ Day Convocation at Wait Chapel on campus.
Calling the apology “important and overdue,” Hatch said he was sorry the founders of the university “did not recognize and support the humanity and intrinsic value of those they enslaved.”
“I apologize for the exploitation and use of enslaved people — both those known and unknown — who helped create and build this university through no choice of their own,” he said.
The apology is part of what Hatch described as an ongoing effort to come to grips with how the university participated in and profited from slavery.
The university has also had to confront more recent racial issues ranging from racist emails sent to faculty members and students, to pictures of white students in blackface in old editions of The Howler, the university yearbook.
In his remarks, Hatch outlined some of the ways “Wake Forest was a full participant in the slave economy.”
“Our founder and all of the antebellum presidents owned enslaved people,” Hatch said, adding that many trustees were slaveholders and that students too “perpetuated slavery.” He said that slaves helped build and maintain the college and that as many as 16 slaves were sold to the benefit of Wake Forest. The school was established in the town of Wake Forest in February 1834 before being moved to Winston-Salem in 1956.
“Acknowledging past wrongs and taking responsibility are only the start of repairing damage and seeking healing,” Hatch said Thursday. “A true apology requires taking action and incorporating meaningful change.”
In May 2019, faculty, staff and students read the names of enslaved individuals who were sold to benefit the university endowment in 1860. In July 2019, Hatch established the President’s Commission on Race, Equity and Community. In 2017, Wake Forest joined the Universities Studying Slavery Consortium, with the goal of dealing with issues surrounding race and inequality.
Wake Forest also has a Slavery, Race and Memory Project underway that has been described as a way for the university to shed more light on its history and to deal with what Hatch said were past and present inequalities in the university community.
“As the years pass, each generation has come to comprehend more clearly the injustices that accompanied our founding,” Hatch said Thursday. Just as Wake Forest people in the past failed to see their flaws, he said, university members today “can be blinded by our own privilege.”
“We must challenge the logic and end the systems that caused, and continue to cause, significant harm to individuals, our institution and society,” he said.
During Hatch’s remarks, some students stood up in a silent demonstration. Senior Alexander Holt, who helped organize the action, said in an emailed statement beforehand that the group planned to stand in recognition of the involuntary sacrifices of enslaved people and the continuing effect of slavery’s legacy on current students.
Sophomore Kate Pearson, who attended the convocation, said that while the university’s apology is “an important first step,” she’s waiting for the follow-through.
“I’d like to see, particularly with the conclusion of the President’s Commission, what the administration intends to do to put action behind their apology,” Pearson said.
Hatch noted in his remarks that some people may see the university’s apology as coming too late, but Pearson said that it’s still an important thing for Wake Forest to do, “no matter how long it has been.”
In his keynote Founder’s Day speech, Jonathan Walton, the dean of Wake Forest’s School of Divinity, told the audience the history of the university “is both beautiful and terrible,” but people in the present can’t escape its effects.
“Profits from the sale of human beings constitute the institutional soil in which our existence is rooted,” Walton said. “Each one of us stands on the sun-baked, bruised shoulders of those who built this school against their will.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.