WPU Struggles with Racial Reckoning

Michelle Peace Photos (1)

By Dezarae Churchill

One hundred and sixty-five years ago, William Peace donated $10,000 and a plot of land to create Peace Institute, hoping to provide higher educational opportunities for the women of Raleigh.

Last month, the focus on campus turned to the many times in William Peace University’s history when a commitment to equity was not upheld. A university task force confirmed that founder William Peace owned enslaved people. It also found that WPU’s Main Building was built using the labor of enslaved people, and that the university’s yearbook published racist content. 

On March 22, President Ralph released a statement regarding the findings.

“We knew that to move forward with our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion we must understand our history as an institution and where it may or may not intersect with white supremacy, slavery and or racism,” said Ralph. 

Peace College was North Carolina’s second institution of higher learning available to women in the late 1800s, according to NCpedia.

Introduction of a women’s college in downtown Raleigh was revolutionary at that time. Before utilizing Main building for education, it was used as a confederate hospital and a Freedmen’s bureau during the Civil War.

With the arrival of male students in 2012, the board of trustees voted to change the name to William Peace University, in honor of the founder.

WPU Findings

A task force of instructors, staff, and students were assigned to research the life of William Peace, and the history of racism on campus beginning Fall 2021. 

They found that the 1860 Census indicates Peace owned 51 enslaved people. 

Past editions of the Peace Yearbook ‘The Lotus’ contained racially stereotypical content and racial slurs. One edition is dedicated to Josephus Daniels, who is complicit in the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, in which a mob of white supremacists destroyed a locally owned black newspaper and murdered members of the town. 

The institution will insert memorandums into the past editions of The Lotus in an attempt to recognize the racist implications of the past. 

Community Reactions 

Many members of the university were not startled by these findings, but were disappointed and a solemn mood fell over campus. 

The statue of William Peace that was added to the bench in front of Main in 2007 was removed the same day the statement was released. The university dedicated Thursday, March 24 to a day of reflection following the statement. The following day, a community walk took place on campus led by Ralph. 

“Believing the presence of the William Peace statue could create a divisive environment on campus, and keeping with our current core values, the board of trustees voted in support of removing the statue of Mr. William Peace from campus,” said Ralph. 

There are no current plans to change the name of the university; however, there are 14 listening sessions scheduled around throughout the month. This will allow students and faculty to engage in conversations about the university’s past, and provide a platform to discuss future plans for the university.

Ralph encourages all students to engage in the conversations. 

Reactions to the news varied, and many agree there is no ‘right’ or ‘easy’ answer.
Correcting the wrongs of the past is a process: usually a lengthy, messy one at that. 

Derek Martinez, a junior psychology major, said the history of the university was not surprising, and there is a deep ‘confederate feel’ to the campus. 

“Accepting these types of facts and histories is very challenging and so I understand that as a person of color which is a great thing,” said Martinez. “But I feel like that in some way our focus shouldn’t be entirely on that….. We should focus more on the student involvement on campus.” 

Martinez agrees with the removal of the statue of William Peace, and is hopeful for the future of inclusion and diversity on campus. However, he is nervous that without follow-up action, the removal of the statue is arbitrary. He suggests a physical reminder of the campus’ history, without perceived glorification of Peace’s statue.  

“The statue signifies a piece of our history, but this history isn’t what defines us now,” said Martinez. “What defines us now is the moment we are living in and how we can change that to not repeat what happened in history.”

Nineveh Reddick, a junior sports and fitness major, feels WPU needs to make a greater effort to rectify racial indecencies on campus. All students deserve to feel safe, and knowing the founder of our institution was a slave owner is unsettling. 

“By the founder being a slave owner that does not put respect on the people who helped him build this campus, which were black people,” said Reddick. “That doesn’t help us today, view the school how we should… we should view the school as a place where we feel safe.”

Reddick believes the only way to rectify the inhumanity of the past is to make it a keystone in our education, culture and identity. 

“In the classroom we should educate more people about the different things [people of color] go through,” said Reddick. 

Khalil Tompkins, a junior communications major, believes there should be a greater push for racial reckoning. Our country has failed to provide adequate reparations for its past, he said, and continues to fail citizens through a lack of education and equality. 

“I’ve learned about white history my whole life, and I didn’t flinch,” said Tompkins. “But the moment it’s time to learn about my culture it’s ’oh this is wrong.” 

Tompkins believes there should be a push for conversations that diversify and teach: conversations that share a mutual respect and are entered with intelligence and the intent to learn. 

Tompkins attributes one of the strengths within the black community to resilience. Being placed in uncomfortable social situations frequently has allowed for more flexibility with difficult situations. He urges his white peers to push themselves outside of their comfort zones, and learn about different cultures to help create lasting change. 

“You have to be okay with being uncomfortable in order to be comfortable because that’s the process that helps you through obtaining knowledge. And that’s what you want to be, a knowledgeable human being,” said Tompkins. 

Moving Forward

The statue of William Peace will remain in storage until the university’s students, faculty and alumni decide what is the best course of action.
The university was developed before the construction of the road it sits on, Peace Street, and the major question being asked: would a name change encourage Raleigh to rename the street?

It is a difficult conversation, and as a community reaching a collective decision that best represents who we are as a university seems to be Ralph’s top priority. 

“I can not emphasize enough how much we are, as a university, disturbed and disappointed by these findings. Once we became aware of this painful history, we were determined to be transparent about the results, to tell the truth about our history, and importantly, to learn from it,” said Ralph.

Interview and dialogue contributions by Angel Sutton and Emily Freer. Photos by Michelle Porizkova and Angel Sutton.