It was a bold statement, one that acknowledged past misdeeds and asked for forgiveness. It couldn’t have been easy.
But it was a necessary step.
We appreciate President Nathan Hatch’s recent apology on behalf on Wake Forest University for its historic role in perpetuating slavery. We hope it will be beneficial to the university’s students, faculty, staff and alumni, and help to bring about a sense of healing and unity.
“I apologize for the exploitation and use of enslaved people — both those known and unknown — who helped create and build this university through no choice of their own,” Hatch said during Wake Forest’s Founders’ Day Convocation at Wait Chapel last week, as the Journal’s Wesley Young reported.
Hatch acknowledged that the university’s founder, antebellum presidents and trustees owned slaves. The students, too, perpetuated slavery, he said. He acknowledged the sad truth that slaves helped build and maintain the college’s original campus in the town of Wake Forest, as well as serving as economic fodder: as many as 16 slaves were sold to the benefit of Wake Forest.
Hatch’s speech follows other such public reckonings. UNC Chapel Hill and Salem College and Academy offered similar apologies in 2018, and Georgetown University in 2017. Several long-standing businesses have made similar apologies. The U.S. House of Representatives offered an apology for slavery and for Jim Crow laws in 2008, followed by the U.S. Senate in 2009.
In many ways, both literal and figurative, much of our nation and its wealth were built on slave labor. The remnants can be seen on campuses, on the sides of roads, in historic buildings — and in institutional profits. Truthfully acknowledging these raw facts allow us, we hope, to achieve forgiveness and to move forward together.
There are still a few who will try to downplay or excuse the role of slavery in our nation’s history. It’s true that sensibilities were different then.
But it’s also true that the U.S. was late to realize the injustice of owning human beings as property. Our European contemporaries outlawed slavery decades before us. And even before our nation’s founding, abolitionists tried to enlighten our societies. The reluctance to give up slavery led to one of our nation’s darkest chapters, the Civil War.
Some will say that the university’s apology is too late. Those who were forced to labor on Wake Forest’s campus are long gone.
But today’s institutional leaders can only do what they can do.
The acknowledgement of the university’s role should just be the first of many steps to follow.
Many, like sophomore Kate Pearson, who attended the convocation, will be waiting for the follow-through. “I’d like to see, particularly with the conclusion of the President’s Commission, what the administration intends to do to put action behind their apology,” she told the Journal.
Wake Forest has taken other steps, establishing the afore-mentioned commission on race, equity and community and joining a consortium of universities studying slavery. We feel certain there will be more, if only because students and faculty will hold the university’s leaders accountable.
In the meantime, the ugly stain of racism has reared its head in other ways in recent times, seemingly emboldened. It’s an evil that should be confronted, especially by our institutions of learning, with reason, compassion and, when appropriate, forgiveness. Most of all, it should be confronted by the truth. That, we’re told, is what sets us free.