At Wake Forest, our motto invites each of us to stand with and for humanity. Whether through research, teaching, community service, or institutional initiatives, how we respond to this call shows up in countless ways on campus — and makes me proud to lead this University. I want to share some recent updates on just one example of a University project that exemplifies our ongoing efforts to live out our motto and uphold our commitment to fostering an inclusive learning and working environment.
On a perfect, fall day in September, I boarded a bus with colleagues, students, and alumni from across our campus, bound for Charlottesville, Va. I was traveling with the University’s Campus Memorialization Steering Committee, co-chaired by Provost Michele Gillespie and Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer José Villalba, to visit two sites of remembrance on university campuses: the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia and “Hearth: A Memorial to the Enslaved” at William and Mary.
The purpose of the trip was straightforward: to allow committee members to see firsthand what others have accomplished and how they did their critical work as we consider our own Wake Forest project. The trip also provided a powerful opportunity to meet with scholars and university and community leaders who worked together to bring these projects to life for UVA and William and Mary.
Campus memorial projects, however, are anything but straightforward. They are complex, nuanced, and layered. They aim to take into account the unique and complicated ways enslavement is woven into the stories of higher education institutions. And, the projects must navigate challenging contexts of decades, even centuries, of lack of acknowledgment for all those whose lives and labors contributed to and formed the foundations upon which these universities were built.
Wake Forest, UVA, and William and Mary are very different institutions for many reasons: from the dates of our foundings, to our scale and scope and campus locations, to our governance and organizational structures. Yet, we share a common commitment to reckoning with our institutional histories and expanding our narratives so that we can both learn from our past and build better futures.
In talking with leaders at UVA and William and Mary, many shared profound experiences about how the community-driven work of building their memorials made their campuses stronger, created new and important research opportunities and creative work, and helped to build further connections between their campuses and the communities in which they reside.
At Wake Forest, the call for a campus memorial emerged from the insights and recommendations of a series of prior university committees and working groups. Multiple recommendations have been acted on, including most recently the naming and renaming of an academic building and several campus roads. Over the past two years, we have also established transparent processes by which we continue to make progress.
The work we embarked on this academic year is in direct response to our Board of Trustees’ April 2021 resolution, passed unanimously, to create a campus memorial “for those who served the institution against their will and also those whose lives were tragically altered by Wake Forest’s action on May 7, 1860.” The resolution further detailed that the memorial should provide a context for the record of Samuel Wait, both as the founder of the University and as a person with enslaved persons serving his household.
We are fortunate to have architectural and design experts engaged alongside us on this important memorialization project. Our partner, Baskervill, has worked with Emory University, William and Mary, and the University of Richmond on their memorials. During our September tour, we were joined on multiple stops by the Baskervill team, led by Burt Pinnock, a principal and chair of their board. I was impressed with how they listened to our committee members and also shared their experiences in community-driven processes. Our joint goal is to ensure our work occurs at a pace that is right for Wake Forest and invites many voices to be heard as the committee contemplates potential memorial designs.
As part of this, in collaboration with our campus steering committee this semester, Baskervill has led a series of dialogues with faculty, staff, students, and community members here in Winston-Salem where Wake Forest moved in 1956, and in the city of Wake Forest, N.C., the site of Wake Forest College from 1834 to 1956. Over the coming months, the distillation of themes and priorities shared in these dialogues will inform the first drafts of campus memorial designs.
My hope is that through this memorial project, we will create a campus space that honors the dignity and humanity of each person it is intended to represent. We will also strive, together, to ensure that the memorialization process itself creates opportunities for learning, introspection and reflection for each of us.
Wake Forest’s history, like all colleges and universities across the country, is a window to the larger history of the United States. Our founding in 1834 in the South, and the early College’s participation in enslavement, is a critical part of our past with which we are reckoning. I believe that acknowledging and more fully telling this difficult part of our story is critical to our ongoing efforts to ensure Wake Forest is truly a place where all who come here can belong and thrive.
Categories: From Wente's Desk