Wake Forest campus

Wake Forest quad featuring Wait Chapel, April 2017. (Walt Unks/Winston-Salem Journal)

On a fall afternoon, students walked around Hearn Plaza at Wake Forest University. Most of them were chatting or walking dogs or taking advantage of a sunny day to study outside.

But tensions lingered under the campus' friendly atmosphere, as students and faculty worried about the campus' racial and social climate.

In early September, 12 university Wake Forest faculty and staff members received racist and homophobic emails that called for a purge of minorities and members of the LGBTQ community. The emails came months after Wake Forest found itself at the center of controversy after images surfaced of white students in blackface and posing in front of Confederate flags in old editions of The Howler, the university's yearbook.

Among those pictured was the university administrator over admissions. Before that, in early 2018, a student posted a video in which she admitted she called her resident adviser a racial slur. Within days of the video's appearance, the university said the student was no longer enrolled at the school. 

The controversies come as Wake Forest grows more diverse. Of Wake Forest's 5,225 undergraduate students, 69% are white, 12% are Asian; 9% are Hispanic; 5% are black; and 5% are mixed race.

And on a recent day, the September emails weighed heavily on some students' minds. 

Wake Forest is a welcoming place, but "there will always be people here who are intolerant," said Alana Smith, a WFU junior from Thomasville. "When the emails came out, I was scared because people were talking about them."

WFU administrators should have taken immediate action after the emails were sent rather than waiting a week, Smith said. The university publicly released a statement about the emails on Sept. 17, a week after the emails were initially sent.

Through a university spokeswoman, Wake Forest declined a Journal reporter's request to interview President Nathan Hatch for this story. The spokeswoman pointed to Hatch's earlier public statements about diversity issues at Wake Forest.

The emails were sent Sept. 10-11 to individual and office inboxes associated with the Department of Sociology, Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the LGBTQ Center and Intercultural Center, WFU said in a statement. The emails made no direct threat to anyone, but the university increased the police and security presence around the buildings where the emails were received.

Hunt Wasden, a WFU sophomore from Savannah, Ga., said that many professors have encouraged students to talk openly about the emails during class.

"People are trying to reach a middle ground surrounding these issues," said Wasden, the communications director for Wake Forest College Republicans. "Our campus has had some tough incidents. There is a lot of emotion.

"Not being a student of color, there are some things that (white students) will never understand from the perspective of students of color," Wasden said. "It's a very difficult topic with a lot of historical perspective." 

Emails persist as a topic

Joseph Soares, chairman of WFU's sociology department, said he's concerned that racial animus lingers at the university.

"You are walking into a campus that feels like a white country club," Soares said. "Some people — students, faculty members and staff — are scared. At some point, they have felt unwelcome and threatened."

Soares said seven members of his department received the racist email in September. The email says: "Have you as an academic ever taken the time to read the essays written by the founders of this country? What about any college graduate from the 1800s? Or the early 1900s? If you did, you would see what a failure modern academia has become and how far superior the education system was when we held everyone to the standards set by well raised white men.

"How many of your sh--hole mud students can quote Socrates?" the email said. "How many have a classical education? Even my own writing has suffered from just viewing the tweets of these Neanderthals. We need to stop all diversity programs and restore what made the West the greatest force for true progress in the history of the world.

"I agree with the right on one thing — that we need to purge this country of the hyper-emotional, hyperbolic and the hyper-pigmented," the email said.

Soares says that email and the others that had similar language are hate speech.

WFU police, who are working with local, state and federal authorities, are trying to identify the author of the emails. If investigators learn that the sender is a student, then that student should be expelled, Soares said. 

If the sender is a faculty member, staff member or campus employee, then that person should be fired, Soares said.

"Hate speech on this campus is not tolerated," he said.

Adela Morales, a WFU junior from Rosewell, Ga., agreed with Soares. If investigators learn a Wake student sent the emails, that student should be expelled, Morales said.

"That would show that Wake Forest is taking action rather brushing it under the rug," Morales said. "Hatred like that shouldn't be accepted."

In the immediate aftermath of the emails, university police officers were stationed in the Kirby-Manchester Hall, where the sociology and other departments are located, Soares said. Campus police officers now monitor the building and occasionally walk through it, Soares said.

Morales also noticed an increased presence of campus police officers.

Soares believes his department was targeted because of an anti-racism event it staged in May with the WFU School of Divinity. During the event, organizers presented student research about the involvement of Wake Forest College with slavery during the 1800s when the school was located in the town of Wake Forest in northern Wake County. 

The research touched on the slaves that the college sold to create the Wake Forest College endowment fund.

Alberto Bufalino, a WFU sophomore from Durham, agreed with Soares that some students are still upset about the emails.

However, many other students simply are not talking the emails or the issues arising from them, said Bufalino, the editor-in-chief of the Wake Forest Review, an independent student newspaper at Wake Forest.

"There isn't big conversations on stuff like that," Bufalino said. "Some students feel like they are threatened when things like that happen. But there is a lack of a broader conversation."

Celeste Moore, a Wake Forest senior from Greensboro, said that the emails highlighted racial makeup of the students.

"You are aware of your race when you are walking around on campus," said Moore, who is black. "It's a thought in the back of your mind that there are (white) people that don't want you here." 

Series of incidents

Over the past five years, the university has had its share of racial issues. 

A coalition of nearly 500 students, faculty and staff staged a rally in April and demanded that university officials immediately begin a zero-tolerance policy for white supremacy.

A racist Instagram post on March 22 suggesting Wake Forest University build a wall to separate the institution from Winston-Salem State University sparked anger and concern on both campuses. Wake Forest University officials condemned the post.

In January 2018, there was the video of the white female student using a the racial slur. 

In 2014, the predominately white Kappa Alpha fraternity canceled an off-campus party with a theme about black culture, after an uproar on social media.

That same year, Imam Khalid Griggs, an associate chaplain at the university, found a bucket of urine in front of his office on campus.

In February, the Z. Smith Library revealed on its website 94 pages from The Howler that contained negative images of people of color, women and members of the LGBTQ community from 1903 to 2007.

Among the images are a 1906 picture of a white man holding a stick and chasing a black man who is holding a chicken. The picture was the illustration for the school's track team.

The 1926 yearbook had a medical school picture of a human dissection with the caption, "Sliced N----r."

Wake Forest has acknowledged racist images of students in blackface that were published in yearbooks in past decades. Those include photographs of Wake Forest students posing with the Confederate flag. Two of those students are now WFU administrators.

Tanya Zanish-Belcher, the library's director of special collections and archives, said that the library staff members compiled the images several years ago.

"And we knew we should have an inventory," Zanish-Belcher said in an email. "We made it available online ... due to several student research requests."

Anthony Parent, a WFU professor of history and American ethnic studies, explained why there were so many negative images of blacks in the yearbooks, despite the fact that black students were not admitted to the university until the 1960s.

"There were so many depictions and references to negative stereotypes and racist allusions partly because of the relative absence of African Americans as students, faculty or staff and partly because the college fully embraced the attitudes of the Jim Crow era," Parent said in an email. 

"During this era, Africans Americans were more likely to be targets of racist assaults in Piedmont regions where African Americans were a minority. The allusions in the Howler yearbook to lynching and the Ku Klux Klan violence, the caricatures of blacks, and celebrations of Thomas Dixon, a Wake alumnus, whose novels served as foundation for the "Birth of the Nation," a film celebrating white supremacy and racial violence, all indicate a full embrace of white supremacist attitudes during the Jim Crow era.

"Indeed during the 1900s, Wake Forest College was a seedbed for virulent racism," Parent said.

WFU traces its history back to 1834, when Wake Forest Manual Labor Institute was founded in Wake Forest, according to the university's website. It was rechartered as Wake Forest College in 1838. The school opened its current campus in Winston-Salem in 1956.

Jim Steele, a 1979 Wake Forest graduate, said the library publicly releasing the yearbook images was the right approach.

"I think it’s smart of the university to take ownership of these images and make them readily available rather than waiting for them to be revealed otherwise," Steele said.

Wake establishes commission

In May, Hatch announced that Wake Forest had established the President's Commission on Race, Equity and Community to address issues surrounding diversity and prejudice on the campus. The commission has 30 members consisting of faculty members, administrators and students.

"I have learned a great deal over the course of the year as I have sat with students, faculty and staff, especially those from underrepresented groups," Hatch said in a statement announcing the commission. "I have listened intently about their lives at Wake Forest, including explicit examples of discrimination and overt racism."

Hatch also said in the statement, "We have heard the concerns of members of our community regarding race, inequity and the lived experiences of some of our students, staff and faculty.

"While there is no easy solution or quick fix to address those concerns, there must be constant and intentional movement toward improving the Wake Forest experience for all — especially those who contend with bias and prejudice all too frequently," Hatch said,

Jose Villalba, the commission's co-chairman, said the group has met twice during this semester.

"Without presuming to speak definitively for all students of color, we do know that some have been confronted with challenges to their place here," said Villalba, the university's vice president for diversity and inclusion and its chief diversity officer.

"They have sometimes felt excluded from the social life of campus and unseen or unheard in the classroom," Villalba said. "We hear their stories, and we are all the more compelled to respond with empathy and action.

"The commission is a step in that direction," Villalba said. "By examining the policies and practices that may present obstacles for students of color (and other marginalized groups) to feel fully included in the Wake Forest community, we are paving the way for appropriate changes."

Through the work of several committees, "the commission will develop and present recommendations for increasing the opportunity for and access to the sense of belonging that we want all of our students to experience," Villalba said.

On Oct. 11, the university released a statement about the work of its Slavery, Race and Memory Project. In 2017, Wake Forest joined the group, Universities Studying Slavery, a consortium of colleges and universities that are examining the role slavery played on their campuses.

"It’s important to understand those relationships because they can and do have implications for today," said Kami Chavis, WFU's associate provost for academic initiatives and a co-chairwoman of the project's steering committee.

“Slavery is an ugly part of our nation’s past and racial discrimination persists today, but many institutions have been reluctant to explore these topics,” Chavis said. “It’s important to discuss it because unless we reckon with the role that enslaved people had in building the physical structures, as well as the role they played in other aspects of Wake Forest, then we are not honoring an accurate depiction of our history.”

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