Wheaton magazine

Volume 21 // Issue 2
Wheaton magazine // Spring 2018

Passing Generations

Matthew's Gospel delineates the generations preceding the Advent of Jesus. These genealogies communicate significant truths that God oversees and guides humanity and their affairs and that he is in control. His plans and prophecies will win out. Deuteronomy is filled with the admonition to remember. The past is important. The names written down in the genealogies were stories worth remembering. Remembering the past comforts us in the present, and helps us chart a path into the future.

As an institution of higher education, Wheaton’s history is very much a history of its students. Her students are her progeny and their lives display their character, formed, in part, through their time in her halls. The stories of Wheaton’s generations tell stories of God’s faithfulness but also of human successes and failings.

Both narratives need to be remembered.

Having recently celebrated its sesquicentennial in 2010, many of the details of Wheaton’s founding have been recounted in Wheaton’s publications. Wheaton’s abolitionist foundation is clear. Proudly, and rightly so, it recalls the school’s antebellum vision that “No distinctions are made in the rights and privileges of students, on account of ancestry or color. The equality of all in natural and inalienable rights is fully recognized.”[1] The Illinois Institute and Wheaton College were a place where those on the margins could receive an education. Within Wheaton’s archive stories abound of the generations of students of color.

The stories of early students of color, Mary Barker, Edward Sellers, and William Osborne, were highlighted in Wheaton magazine in spring 2004.[2] Barker became a school teacher in Quincy, Illinois, Sellers pastored Congregationalist churches in Selma and Chattanooga. Osborne was ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal church in 1880 and served churches in Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, and Washington, before concluding his ministry in Kansas City. He also served as a member of the board of Wilberforce University. There are also lesser known stories of graduates of color.[3]

These stories are the easy ones to retell. They speak of opportunity and success. These students were the first-fruits of the Kingdom, of a changing culture. They fulfilled the vision of the Wesleyan Methodist founders and displayed a gospel able to restore and reclaim. However, history and the college’s archive hold other generations.

Within two generations of Wheaton’s founding, stories of struggle began to be recorded, even finding their way into local and national newspapers. Though more research is always needed to aid accuracy and clarity, it is clear that at the turn of the century the city of Wheaton and Wheaton College had changed. Wheaton College had been known as an abolitionist school in an abolitionist town. In the early years of the twentieth century the city was no longer a haven for citizens of color and some students at the college seemed less interested in the “least of these.” Efforts to establish a “Negro colony” in southwest Wheaton failed over concerns of the negative effect on property values.[4] In the same year students were more than uneasy about enrollment at this “fashionable institution of a young negro woman.”[5] There were cultural shifts happening as Jim Crow and cultural norms were at battle with the power of the gospel.

A watershed moment in Wheaton’s history was the matriculation of Charles Satchell Morris, Jr., great-grandson of Frederick Douglass and the son of a prominent Harlem pastor. Morris spent his youth as a popular travelling orator. Responding to a donation request, an aged Morris would remember the ill-treatment he experienced at Wheaton. He recounted expulsion from the dining room while in his Army uniform, receiving no remedy from Charles Blanchard. Morris replied that after this insult he would “never, never, never” support the college. The administration saw Morris as having “radical leanings…[and being] something of a rascal.”[6] He later attended the University of Chicago and Columbia University, preached at Martin Luther King Jr.’s North Montgomery Baptist Church, and held significant positions at several colleges.

The shift at Wheaton continued into the 1930s when, as Michael Hamilton states, the college “was none too eager to enroll black students.”[7] The archival record he drew upon included minutes and correspondence with Wyeth Willard relating to the recommendation of Rachel Boone as a student. The college’s response was that Boone’s admission would create “social problems” such that Wheaton “could not provide for colored students on the Wheaton campus.” In the correspondence, Willard challenged the college’s action and emphasized the inclusiveness of the Gospel.[8] Rachel Boone should be considered a lost alumna. The loss was to Wheaton and all that it had given-up when Boone was denied enrollment. She was the daughter of American medical missionaries in Liberia and eventually enrolled in Houghton College. She later graduated from Boston University School of Medicine and moved to Detroit where she practiced medicine for fifty years and was a significant voice for civil rights in the region.[9]

The unstated practice of admissions stemming from the college’s inability to “provide for colored students” lingered for many years. Several decades later it was stated in the alumni magazine that C. Herbert Oliver, class of 1947, had been the first "Negro graduate of Wheaton College since the 1920s.” Once yanked from his home by Birmingham’s police commissioner “Bull” Connor, Oliver has spent his lifetime protesting segregation and injustice in Birmingham and New York City as he has sought to follow, what he described as, “the Jesus of the Scriptures, not the Jesus of the culture.”[10] 

These generations tell stories of struggle and their struggle is Wheaton’s struggle, one with episodes of progress, stagnation, and failure. During the Civil Rights era alumni like Carl Henry and Harold Lindsell spoke against Evangelical views on race.[11]  In its centennial year, Wheaton had a chance to recount these struggles but chose to disengage.[12] During this time many Evangelicals struggled to understand that a commitment to theological conservatism did not require an alignment with social conservatism.

As the turn of the twenty-first century approached Wheaton College’s administration began to recognize the diminished character of the college through its limited participation and partnership by people of color. Through building bridges, breaking down walls, and expanding opportunities, efforts at diversifying Wheaton are finding expression. Awareness is being raised and actions taken. Scholarships have increased and recruitment broadened.

In the future may new generations tell of the growth of the diversity of God’s Kingdom being displayed at Wheaton College.

For more about ethnic diversity at Wheaton in the current and coming generations, visit wheaton.edu/diversity.

[1] Charter and circular, 1855. Box 1, Folder 1. Illinois Institute Records, 1855-1902 (RG/00/001), Wheaton College, Wheaton College Archives, Buswell Library, Wheaton, Illinois.

[2] Wheaton magazine, spring 2004.

[3] [Theodore Jones]. “A Republican Cook County Commissioner?” 

[4] “Negro Colony Got a Black Eye.” Wheaton Illinoian, June 25, 1909.

[5] “Proved to be Negress.” Hopkinsville Kentuckian, February 9, 1909, p.5.

[6] “Morris, Charles Satchell Jr., 1922,” Biographical Files (RG 11.2), Wheaton College, Wheaton College Archives, Buswell Library, Wheaton, Illinois.

[7] Hamilton, Michael S. 1994. The fundamentalist Harvard: Wheaton College and the continuing vitality of American evangelicalism, 1919-1965, p. 213.

[8] “Willard, W. Wyeth; Correspondence, 1930-1939.” J. Oliver Buswell, Jr. Records (RG 2.3), box 27, folder 13, Wheaton College, Wheaton College Archives,  Buswell Library, Wheaton, Illinois.

[9] “Dr. Rachel Keith.” 

[10] Grant, Jennifer. “This little light.” Wheaton, Spring 2010 (vol 14, n. 2). Wheaton, Ill: Wheaton College, p. 49.

[11] Beck, Albert R. “All Truth Is God's Truth: the Life and Ideas of Frank E. Gaebelein.” Diss. Baylor University, 2008, 284; and, Lindsell, Harold. “The Bible and Race Relations: our prejudices stand little chance in the light of the principles of Scripture.” Eternity 7.8 (1956), 43.

[12] “Race Relations.” V. Raymond Edman Records (RG 2.3), box 7, folder 17, Wheaton College, Wheaton College Archives,  Buswell Library, Wheaton, Illinois.