Wingate University, a private liberal arts college in North Carolina, has set up a committee to determine “next steps” after learning its namesake, Washington Manly Wingate, sold slaves a year before the Civil War.
The committee of faculty, staff, students, alumni, trustees, town officials and others will discuss next steps, the university said in a statement. It’s unclear if those steps might include changing the school’s name.
“This truth hurts,” Wingate President Rhett Brown said in the statement. “It casts a shadow over our university, my alma mater, and is not in keeping with who we are today, what we value and how we strive to be more inclusive for the students who study here and the people who work here.”
The announcement is part of a broader push in recent years to recognize America’s history of slavery and better understand the ways that the practice still impacts the present. A number of institutions and universities have changed their names or taken down statues that had honored those who participated in the antebellum system of enslaving Black people.
Washington Manly Wingate was never actually involved with his namesake university. A preacher and professor, Wingate was the fourth president of Wake Forest University, serving from 1853 to 1862 and again after the Civil War from 1866 until his death in 1879.
When a new school was founded in 1896, “Wingate” was suggested as the name by the son of an inaugural trustee, who was teaching at Wake Forest at the time, according to Wingate University. The university now enrolls more than 3,600 students on three campuses in North Carolina.
In 2018, Wingate University asked three employees to look into whether any buildings, monuments or statues were named after people with “egregious” pasts, but the search came up empty, the university said.
However, on Friday, Wake Forest announced that it was changing the name of its own Wingate Hall to “May 7, 1860 Hall.” That date, the university said, was when Wake Forest — under Wingate’s leadership — sold at auction 16 people who had been bequeathed to the university by a slave-owning benefactor.
“By renaming this building, we acknowledge the University’s participation in slavery, recognize this aspect of our history and remember those who labored at the institution against their will,” Wake Forest President Nathan O. Hatch said in a statement. “We hear their stories, learn their names and honor what they endured for our institution.”
Brown, the Wingate University president, said he recently learned about this slave-selling past in a phone call with Hatch.
“Knowing that the stain of past transgressions can never be eliminated and that the debt to people of color can never be repaid, Wingate University officials do believe this deeply upsetting news can serve as an opportunity for reflection, reconciliation and growth,” Wingate University said in its statement.