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Our view: WFU’s tone-deaf naming dilemma
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Our view

Our view: WFU’s tone-deaf naming dilemma

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Wake Forest University has been wrestling with some less savory aspects of its history for a while now — as well as its present, taking steps to ensure that all students, especially minorities, feel welcome on its campus. In February 2020, President Nathan O. Hatch apologized on behalf of the university for its historic role in perpetuating slavery in the late 1800s. The university established a commission on race, equity and community and joined a consortium of universities studying the issue.

So we have no doubt that the university’s representatives had their hearts in the right place when they decided to rename Wingate Hall.

We just wonder where their heads were.

Near the beginning of May, Wake Forest announced that it would rename the hall, adjacent to Wait Chapel — originally named after Washington Manly Wingate, a Baptist preacher who owned slaves and served two terms as Wake Forest’s president — as May 7, 1860 Hall. That’s the date that Wake Forest, then led by Wingate, sold 16 enslaved men, women and children and used the $10,718 in proceeds to establish its first endowment.

Knowing the significance of that date would make many cringe. Instantly.

But somehow, the Powers That Be saw it differently.

“In selecting this name, we sought to memorialize them (the enslaved people) as vital contributors to the Wake Forest story,” Hatch said last week in a message to the WFU community. “Additionally, we envisioned that choosing this date as the building’s name would invite the question: What happened on May 7th, 1860?”

But the new name upset students, who began circulating a petition opposing it. And the Association of Wake Forest University Black Alumni sent a letter to Hatch, expressing its objections.

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“While we agree with the university’s decision to remove Washington Manly Wingate’s name from the building, we were angered and dismayed by our exclusion from the selection of the new name for Wingate Hall,” the association said. “May 7, 1860 stands as a day of trauma for the individuals who were ripped from their families, and represents a day in history where Black people were sold in a transaction that benefited the university.”

The university put an immediate pause on the renaming plans.

“We have heard particularly from some Black students, for whom Wake has felt unwelcoming, that the name, ‘May 7, 1860’ on a campus building would further alienate or traumatize them,” Hatch said.

Hatch then asked Donna Edwards, a 1980 graduate and a former Maryland congresswoman, and university vice president Jose Villalba to chair a committee focused on clarifying the objectives in selecting a name for Wingate Hall and collecting and understanding the Wake Forest community’s concerns, reactions and suggestions for a new name. The committee is to complete its work and report by June 30.

The “1860” name had been run by the university’s Board of Trustees, and also, we presume, by the university’s Advisory Committee on Naming, created last summer. It’s a mystery how such a tone-deaf name could get by so many learned individuals. Maybe a commission should be established to study that question.

Wake Forest isn’t the only school now dealing with the Wingate name. Wingate University, near Charlotte, recently became aware that its namesake, the same Washington Manly Wingate, was linked to slavery. Somehow it hadn’t known, even after a 2018 investigation to see if anything on campus was named after someone with “an egregious past.”

“This truth hurts,” Wingate President Rhett Brown said in a statement. “It casts a shadow over our university, my alma mater, and is not in keeping with who we are today, what we value and how we strive to be more inclusive for the students who study here and the people who work here.”

The school has established a special committee to consider options.

Hatch is scheduled to retire on June 30. For 16 years, he has guided the university through many challenges, including COVID-19 — and dealing with the university’s connections to slavery. Overall he’s been an effective and conscientious administrator.

The final name chosen for the former Wingate Hall will be a part of his legacy. It should be a good one.

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