From left, Hayley Michael, Christian Santiago and Tavarus Pennington prepare for their three-part presentation on slavery at William Jewell College. The students, who worked with the Slavery, Memory and Justice Project to produce their research, spoke at the college's Duke Colloquium on April 22 in Yates-Gill College Union.
From left, Hayley Michael, Christian Santiago and Tavarus Pennington prepare for their three-part presentation on slavery at William Jewell College. The students, who worked with the Slavery, Memory and Justice Project to produce their research, spoke at the college's Duke Colloquium on April 22 in Yates-Gill College Union. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

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William Jewell College brands itself as “The Critical Thinking College.” 

Three “key questions” are central to the curriculum of the Liberty, Missouri, institution: What is real? What can we know? How should we live?

But as a student- and faculty-led group called the Slavery, Memory and Justice Project applied critical thinking skills to a study of the college’s slaveholding founders, members have felt marginalized in discussions about the truth of William Jewell’s past. 

Instead, the administration formed its own research group, the Racial Reconciliation Commission, which critics say is laying a flawed foundation for conversations about the school’s future. 

In front of a large audience at the college’s April 22 Duke Colloquium, history professor Christopher Wilkins said members of the justice project — which also includes alumni — had hoped the college would endorse their work, amplify it and follow their suggestions on “best practices.” 

Instead, Wilkins said, the college has undermined academic freedom by suggesting people outside its own commission don’t have equal standing to pursue the truth without having their work overruled by an official version of the college’s history.

After an Aug. 24 Kansas City Beacon report on the slavery research sparked discussions about change on campus, President Elizabeth MacLeod Walls emailed faculty and staff to assert that “it is the sole responsibility of the Commission to determine what is true and then to make recommendations to me and the Board on how we then should live and act on this campus.” 

An Aug. 30 email about the Racial Reconciliation Commission from Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, William Jewell College president, sent to faculty and staff Aug. 30. (Screenshot)

“The argument there is that only the college administration has the authority to say what is true about its history,” Wilkins said of the email.

Rodney Smith, William Jewell’s vice president for access and engagement, said that on the contrary, the administration welcomes the SMJP’s work and encouraged its members to join the commission. 

He said the commission is open to feedback and considers its initial report a working document. 

“I care about this,” Smith said. “We care about this work as an institution, or else we wouldn’t be doing it. … At the end of the day, I think the SMJP and RRC are after the same things.”

The truth about slavery and William Jewell

The three official histories of William Jewell College mention iterations of the word “slavery” only five times. 

But researchers with both groups discovered the college’s ties to slavery run deep. 

Many of the trustees who founded and funded the college, including Dr. William Jewell himself, enslaved people.

The discoveries come at a time when colleges and universities around the U.S. and beyond have been investigating their historical ties to slavery. More than 90 joined the Universities Studying Slavery (USS) Consortium to collaborate and share best practices. 

In late April, Harvard University published a 134-page report and pledged $100 million to a “legacy of slavery fund.” 

Based on other colleges’ work, SMJP members determined a study of slavery should take at least two years and result in a 100-plus-page report. 

Though it has published and presented some initial findings, a comprehensive SMJP report is planned for December, about two and a half years after the project began. Twenty-two people have worked on the project and an additional eight students recently joined, Wilkins said.

Christopher Wilkins, a history professor at William Jewell College, speaks at the Duke Colloquium on April 22 in the Yates-Gill Student Union on the William Jewell College campus. After three of his students presented on the research they conducted as part of the Slavery, Memory and Justice Project, Wilkins gave the second part of his lecture: “Slavery, Historical Memory, and Academic Freedom.” (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

As the SMJP launched, Wilkins tried to connect with college researchers who were also investigating slavery. 

“We essentially proposed to continue the work that students and I were already doing, but hoped the administration would provide us with official standing which would make the college look good when our high-quality work was eventually published,” Wilkins said during his talk. 

He also reached out with suggested actions including: 

  • Joining the USS Consortium. Smith said he has been in contact with the group, but the college has not joined.  
  • Creating a center for the study of slavery. Wilkins asked to use a room in Jewell Hall but offered to personally raise funds to cover costs. Administrators told him Jewell wasn’t ready, he said. 
  • Holding a faculty forum on slavery research. Wilkins said he was told that would be “discourteous to administration,” though Pharamond Guice, director of the Academic Achievement Center, invited him to speak to 50-60 people through the staff council. 

The Racial Reconciliation Commission

When William Jewell unveiled its plan to address slavery research, Wilkins’ concerns grew. The RRC intended to study the college’s entire history, from 1849 to the present, in one year. 

“The RRCs timeline did not strike us as viable,” Wilkins said. “We were also concerned that given the group’s official identity, students would be expected to hand over their research … and the administration would ultimately make decisions on what would be written regardless of what the students said.”

Smith, the vice president for access and engagement, said he turned down some suggestions because he didn’t want to be “prescriptive” for commission members and “wanted us to do it the William Jewell way,” rather than mimicking other colleges.

Early in its process, the commission lengthened the original timeline for the project, but it still moved more quickly on the slavery component than SMJP recommended. 

An RRC report of 33 pages, including appendices, was published Jan. 17, about nine months after the commission was created. It covers 1848-1879 and lists Andrew Pratt, dean emeritus of the chapel and lead researcher for the RRC, as its author. 

Smith told The Beacon that the commission works by “consensus,” with members discussing issues and coming to agreement. 

In addition to Smith, The Beacon requested to speak to Pratt and MacLeod Walls. Cara Dahlor, marketing and public relations director for William Jewell, referred all questions to Smith.

Hayley Michael, an SMJP member who served on the commission until she resigned in the wake of the RRC report, agreed Smith didn’t dictate the commission’s decisions but said she wasn’t sure whether  “consensus” described its process.

“Even though all members had the chance to speak up, not everyone’s voice held the same influence or authority,” she said.  

The William Jewell College campus is pictured April 22. Researchers at the college have determined that enslaved people contributed to building Jewell Hall. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

Michael said commission members received an initial draft of the report by email and discussed it during a meeting that only five to seven of the members attended. An April 2021 announcement of the commission lists 16 members and four advisers including Wilkins — who said his inclusion is an error because he declined to participate.

Michael said she attended the meeting and pointed out factual errors and misrepresentations in the document. She also argued it focused too much on the founders rather than the people they enslaved, and asked that publication be delayed. 

The RRC didn’t delay the report, and Michael didn’t get to review a second draft before publication. 

“In some cases, what he (Pratt) changed for the second version was worse than the first version,” she said.

Smith said the commission considers the report to be largely a “working” or “draft document” and welcomes input from the community. 

“We are willing to amend and adjust and include other people’s perspective in this work,” he said. Smith did not name any specific changes the commission is planning to make after receiving feedback. 

Michael said she met with Smith when she decided to resign to explain her frustrations about the report and how she felt “student voices were ignored, including my own.”

She said the discussion went well and that Smith has always been “civil” and “constructive” in their interactions. When she left Smith told her he was disappointed because he had been planning to ask her to take a leadership role in the next section covering Jewell during and after the Civil War, Michael said.

The RRC report on slavery at William Jewell

Steve Harris was disappointed the first time he read the RRC report and angry the second time, he wrote to Smith, the RRC and the William Jewell College Black Alumni Association.

Harris graduated from Wiliam Jewell in 1987 and worked in Jewell’s education department for two years. He recently served on the Jewell Radical Inclusivity Alumni Council, but said he doesn’t know whether the group is still active.  

In his 12-page memo, plus appendices, Harris argued the report ignored vital context, included unsupported opinions and skipped important factual information that is easy to access online. 

The lack of care taken with the report is “just another item on the pile of daily injustices that tell students of color that they are not as important to the institution as white students,” Harris told The Beacon.

Harris thinks the report highlights a “white male point of view” and minimizes the college’s connection to slavery — for example, by not including relevant census data from before 1850 that is included in preliminary SMJP reports, and by omitting some of the founders’ pro-slavery actions. 

He told The Beacon that’s particularly concerning because the report is supposed to provide a factual foundation for analysis and eventually action. “If you started with bad product, you will continue to have bad product,” he said.  

After he submitted the memo, Harris said Smith reached out by email to thank him and invited him to speak at a commission meeting. But when Harris warned Smith that he would call for Pratt’s resignation, the conversation ended. 

Smith told The Beacon that Harris’ response is “precisely what we wanted from the commission … That’s what we do on college campuses, we engage in intellectual discourse and yeah, we may not agree all the time on everything, but at the end of the day, we are after the truth.” 

William Jewell’s response to slavery research affects atmosphere for students of color

William Jewell needs to understand how the discrepancy between its words and actions regarding diversity contribute to making students of color feel “not welcomed” on a regular basis, Harris said. 

He said issues during his time at the school include Greek life largely excluding Black students and one fraternity flying the Confederate flag. He also wants Jewell to hire more faculty of color. 

Tavarus Pennington, an SMJP member and senior English and communications major, told The Beacon there’s still a culture of minimizing racial justice issues on campus and “tokenizing” people of color. He presented at the April 22 forum, focusing on Jewell’s future.

Pennington, who is featured on the college’s home page and its core curriculum page as of May 3, said students of color, especially those active in campus organizations, often get invited to participate in the college’s diversity initiatives but question whether anything changes. 

“That sort of becomes a struggle for a lot of students, because they’re sort of being turned to to answer for the problems of the campus,” he said. 

One straightforward proposal for change is removing names of specific slaveholders from awards, programs or buildings. In August, Harris told The Beacon there was already enough information about Alexander Doniphan’s vocal support of slavery to make those decisions. 

Senior English and communications major Tavarus Pennington speaks at the Duke Colloquium on April 22 at Yates-Gill College Union on the William Jewell College campus. Pennington was the third Slavery, Memory and Justice Project member to present, speaking on “How a Slaveholding Past Shapes Jewell’s Future.” (Zach Bauman/The Beacon) 

The RRC has yet to issue any recommendations about the naming decisions under the control of the administration. 

But the college’s Student Senate has already decided to remove Doniphan’s name from a senior award. 

Pennington, who is part of the Student Senate, said name changes are ultimately “performative.” But the college shouldn’t rush to more substantial action steps, he added. 

“There needs to be a lot of time for discovery and critical reflection, and we’re in the midst of that,” he said. “And so the only, I guess, prescription for the way to move forward is more in step with vulnerability and allowing ourselves to discover the truth of the matter.”

Harris agreed William Jewell’s first focus should be getting the history right. But when the RRC does move on to analysis, he wants to discourage it from weighing founders’ accomplishments against their connections to slavery. 

“There are some bad acts that cannot be overcome by any good they (the founders) may have done,” Harris wrote. 

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.