Background and Process

The aim of the Wake Forest University Advisory Committee on Naming is threefold:

  1. Affirm a set of principles/decision rubrics for contextualizing sites and elements of honor at Wake Forest.
  2. Convene ‘research subcommittees’ on specific objectionable names; each subcommittee would absorb existing research and, as necessary, expand this research work. Review results and provide advisory recommendations on renaming and prominently contextualizing existing names to President/Board.
  3. Devise and carry out a process for suggesting new names, again based on principles/decision rubric, for future and any renamed structures/institutional honors at the University.

The Committee divided its work into three subcommittees, respective to these tasks.

  1. A Guiding Principles Subcommittee,
  2. A Historical Research Subcommittee, and
  3. A Subcommittee to consider and compile new names worthy of honorifics on campus.

In an early meeting of subcommittee co-chairs, we elected to embrace this work as a positive and generative process rather than a punitive one. This is to say, our work will not be overly consumed with or animated by identifying names to remove — too many associate the removal of names with history’s erasure. On the contrary, we understand our aims as extending the Slavery, Race and Memory Project’s work. Far from an erasure of history, all three subcommittees seek to offer a more expansive and thus inclusive narrative about Wake Forest University history—a history that is beautiful and, at times, terrible; a history that is part noble as well as tragic. Our task becomes, then, considering the ways this rich and complex history gets instantiated throughout the campus.

The Guiding Principles Subcommittee sought to establish a rubric that would allow Wake Forest to honor the sublime while not allowing the community ever to forget the unseemly. It took us a while to get here, as we used the months of August and September 2020 to consider other institutions’ work. Using the collection of essays published as Slavery and the University, as well as recent examples of renaming and reports from institutions like UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Virginia, Yale University and Loyola University Maryland, we participated in Google group exercises. In considering the structures, approaches and processes of other campuses, it approximated the abstract. It isolated charged emotions associated with any particular space or name here at Wake Forest. Moreover, these exercises allowed us—members of the Guiding Principles Subcommittee—to debate the areas where we may agree or disagree with the processes that governed other campus decisions regarding renaming.

For instance, the University of Virginia’s first guiding principle stated boldly that there should always be a presumption against renaming. On the other hand, UNC began their report assuming that tradition is fluid and made little effort to justify renaming or removing spaces aside from problematic historical facts. Our deliberation brought us to the conclusion that a social process of naming is not analogous to a judicial process of innocence or guilt. Nor do we take tradition lightly, even as we know that a range of external factors informs the naming of buildings, e.g., BB&T Field to Truist Field.

This first exercise led to another task where we considered the distinction between remembering and honoring. Former Transylvania University president and historian R. Owen Williams argues in Slavery and the University that Yale University elected to place Calhoun’s name on a residential college in 1933, in part, because they deemed him an uncontroversial political theorist. That Yale viewed Calhoun in this way was a testament to the successful reunification project in the final and first few decades of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—what historian Edward J. Blum refers to as the “reforging of the white republic.” Yale’s failure to “remember” Calhoun as a staunch defender of the Confederacy and thus evils of slavery led another generation to hoist his name to a place of honor. This led the subcommittee to reinforce the importance of remembering. Whenever the University recognizes a name that should no longer hold an honored place on campus, as Trustee Reverend Prince Raney Rivers put it, it is essential to mark the campus with “a memorial to the complex and painful past we so easily forget.”

Finally, the subcommittee elected to proceed by making Pro Humanitate its conceptual analytic. Whether defined as “for humanity” (outward facing) or “for humanness” (personal cultivation), interrogating the historical narrative of Wake Forest entails interrogating prevailing notions of humanity and humanness. The history of Wake Forest reveals shifting conceptions concerning humanity. Decisions such as whether white male students ought to perform manual labor on campus as a curricular requirement, fund the school with profits from enslaved people, support the establishment of a women’s Baptist school rather than admit women to Wake Forest, intellectually support the eugenics movement or allow African American women to integrate residence halls all speak to the ways campus leaders presumed to be “for humanity.” The curriculum and constitution of an academic community reveal prevailing views about what and who we deem human and to what degree. Using Pro Humanitate as the evaluative frame, we intend to set the stage for the Research Subcommittee (and subsequent generations) to judge figures according to their respective eras’ moral and evaluative standards and not merely our own.

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Research

Research subcommittees comprised of faculty were charged with conducting comprehensive research on several individuals connected to Wake Forest history.