Wheaton College Historical Review Task Force Report

Summary: A Wheaton College task force released its report on Wheaton’s history of racial issues on campus. 

I am a 1995 alumni of Wheaton College, and since my time at Wheaton, I have been interested in racial issues at the school. Part of recent interest was sparked by reading Jesse Curtis’ The Myth of Colorblind Christians: Evangelicals and White Supremacy in the Civil Rights Era. It was only then that the history of Wheaton that I thought I knew was wrong. I was aware of my experience of Wheaton in the 1990s, and I have followed many events on campus since that time, including the firing of Dr. Hawkins. (There is a feature-length documentary that can be widely streamed.)

Wheaton was one of several Christian colleges that initially accepted Black and other racial minority students and then segregated in the early 20th century before desegregating in the post-Brown v. Board era. During my time at Wheaton, I was never aware of a period of segregation; I was only aware of its early history as an early abolitionist school that accepted black students from its founding. The main reason for this report is that Wheaton is attempting to grapple with that largely forgotten or repressed history. I am highly supportive of initiatives like this, and I am well aware that many supporters of Wheaton do not like initiatives like this because it reveals a less flattering history. There is a real risk to the school and the potential for growth.

I read the whole report last weekend. Again, I want to affirm the creation of the report and acknowledge that no matter what was in the report, I would have been disappointed because no matter how much was acknowledged and discussed, more could have been included. I want to temper my disappointment while affirming what I think is good here.

There is a good summary of the report at Christianity Today (unlocked link) for those who do not want to read the 100 pages. Any organization tends to highlight the good and minimize the bad, and while this report attempts to tell the truth that has largely been forgotten, that basic problem still exists. Wheaton was founded as an abolitionist school and did admit Black students early in its history. But it was rarely more than a couple of students at any point in time in its early history. Like many abolitionists, Wheaton was concerned more with ending slavery rather than ending the culture of white racial superiority. After the Civil War, race was no longer a top priority, and the school moved on to focus on other social ills.

I think it is essential that the task force said clearly that there is no evidence that Blanchard or the school participated in the Underground Railroad, a widespread claim. And I think it is essential to discuss the gradual slide into segregation. The report’s main recommendation is that President Buswell’s name be removed from the library because it was under his leadership that the school officially stopped admitting Black students. Still, the report also suggests that the slide had continued for such a long time where there were so few Black students that it was not so much a policy change as a codifying of what had practically been the policy already.

Truthtelling is important, including telling the truth about where Wheaton made some good decisions. This includes Wheaton accepting US-resident Japanese students during WWII who would have otherwise gone to concentration camps. At the same time, Wheaton has accepted more Asian students than Black or Hispanic students since the 1940s, contributing to the model minority myth. That does not mean that Asian students did not face racism; they did, but it is not only positive that starting with those Japanese students, Asian students have nearly always outnumbered Black students on campus.

I think there is another framing problem with discussions of segregation. As Curtis noted in his book, the most significant reason people opposed integrated education at Wheaton and other colleges was the potential for cross-racial dating and marriage. President Edman commissioned a report from the Sociology and Anthropology faculty in 1960 about race on campus. (I wish this short five-page report were an appendix on this report or at least a link within the report.) According to Curtis and this report, one of the recommendations was to change the policy on interracial marriage and hire more Black and other racial minority faculty to make the campus more welcoming to minority students. However, this report says they found no evidence of an official policy opposing interracial relationships.

This is where there should have been more clarity. It can be true that an official policy did not exist, and school officials acted on an unofficial policy. There is clear evidence that students were disciplined for interracial relationships and that the school did have a policy about having the authority to review a marriage of students before it happened or forcing the students to withdraw if they did not approve of the marriage. A policy that was enforced selectively to prevent interracial marriages was an official policy that was used to prevent interracial marriages from happening. And if students were brought before Deans because of interracial dating, then there is evidence that a policy, whether official or unofficial, existed and was acted upon. While the report says no official policy existed preventing interracial relationships, the 1960 report specifically calls for a policy change, which contradicts that framing in this 2023 report.

The 1960 report was never released, and according to Curtis, there were clear efforts to repress it and even to tell the Trustees not to discuss it privately with their spouses. Again, the framing of this discussion in this current Task Force Report is less strong than in Curtis’ book, and I think this is evidence of the Task Force trying to highlight the positives and minimize the negative evidence. Curtis suggests an official change to the policy in the early 1970s. At the same time, the Task Force Report frames that change as removing the marriage review policy, not formally allowing interracial dating and marriage. It is outside the report’s scope, but Curtis’ more extensive comparisons of Wheaton, Moody, and Bob Jones’ history give helpful context. A footnote on page 61 of the Task Force Report says that Moody officially changed its policy prohibiting interracial dating in 1965 but continued to discourage interracial relationships for years later. And that Bob Jones did not officially eliminate its policy until 2000. Again, I think it matters to explicitly note that the cultural opposition to interracial relationships is rooted in white racial hierarchy and that Wheaton acted on its understanding of racial hierarchy and submitted to the cultural biases at the time and for years later.

I think the 1980-2000 period should have been more clearly developed. I was on campus from 1991 to 1995 and was aware of numerous racial events. Off the top of my head, I can think of the chapel speaker who disparaged Quincy Jones’ Soulful Celebration (an album that adapted Handel’s Messiah) that prompted at least one public meeting to discuss the ways that white cultural norms imposed on Black expression. And I know there were examples of students flying Confederate flags in the dorms and how that impacted Black students. There is the mention of a formal investigation and apology for a racial profiling incident in 1998.

Still, I am aware of an incident in the early 1990s where a white woman student called Public Safety because she asserted that a black man approached her in a way that made her feel unsafe. She described the man as smoking and having approached her in the parking lot. Her report did not go to the police because the person she was calling about was quickly identified as a student public safety officer writing parking tickets. He was not in uniform and was not smoking but likely had a white pen in his mouth as he was placing a ticket on the car. I knew about the incident because it was joked about as a misunderstanding. But from what I understand, the public safety officer never spoke to her and did not recall any contact, but her report seems to have been simply that there was a Black man on campus, which made her concerned enough to call. These events matter not just to minority safety and belonging but to the overall culture of the institution. I am sure plenty more documentation could have been discussed, and student efforts to encourage policy changes to help encourage diversity, like the petition drive for five policy changes during the 94-95 school year.

Overall, I am glad it was written. I know that there will be a backlash because I have already seen on social media people disparaging the report as being virtue signaling and “woke.” So, I want to affirm that this is an instance where Wheaton is doing something they did not have to do. But I also think they took the easy way out by stopping the report in 2000. This is better than Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s similar 2018 report, which stopped in the 1960s. However, because there are specific instances of well-known racial incidents post-2000, stopping the report at that date was done to minimize the backlash. That shows institutional weakness and a lack of ability to look at events that occurred when people on campus, now as staff and faculty, were still there.

Update: I was ambivalent about the report, as is clear from above. But after a walk and thinking about it again, the report’s purpose, according to President Ryken’s words, is to bring healing and lead toward a better future. I can see people objecting to some of my comments as too concerned with minor details. The following quote is from the Board of Trustees introduction:

“Therefore as the Board of Trustees representing the College, we repent of all forms of racism and favoritism in our institutional history, whether conscious or unconscious. We are sorry for the way our institutional transgressions have harmed African American, Asian American, Latino, and indigenous groups. We also repent of the indifference and complacency that led us to miss opportunities to enact, bold, courageous changes in institutional policies, programs, and practices related to community members of color. These sins constituted a failure of Christian love; denied the dignity of people made in the image of God; created deep and painful barriers between Christian brothers and sisters; tarnished our witness to the gospel; and prevented us from displaying more fully the beautiful diversity of God’s kingdom. Regardless of how these transgressions are defined, they fall short of what the gospel demands of a Christ-centered community where all members are recognized, loved, and equally respected.”

These are important and helpful words, but as I note the limitations of how the report grapples with the racial history of Wheaton, those limitations are a form of holding back from looking at the entire history. In interpersonal terms, we all have limitations, and sometimes, we cannot fully comprehend the extent of our sin all at once. This means that we will regularly come to a new understanding of how our complicity or overt action impacted others over time. But organizationally, there is a difference. If we can only move at the pace of those who are further behind, then we are, in some sense, being controlled by those most under the “spell” of white racial hierarchy. This means that inherently, even as there are steps forward, reluctant feet-dragging is a denial of the power of the wrong in the first place. The early portions of the report rightly note that the work to end slavery was not paired with a corresponding work to end discrimination or white superiority. The school’s work over the first century primarily did not see white superiority as a problem. And that is where the work of the report needs to focus its attention.

You can download the full report here. 

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