(Ninth in a series; 9,900 views as of 4/14/24)

What is most notable about Wheaton’s Historical Review Task Force Report denouncing former Wheaton President J. Oliver Buswell, Jr. as a racist is the Report’s selective use and interpretations of historical evidence. The Report declares Buswell’s guilt, but as the reader continues through the Task Force’s 122 pages and 421 footnotes, he1 stumbles on names and actions that are a part of the larger history of Wheaton which call into question the Task Force’s narrative.

A good bit this evidence can be found by reading the Report’s footnotes, then following them to the primary sources cited. Reading the entirety of those primary sources, rather than depending upon the snippets cited by the Task Force, reveals historical facts inconvenient to the story being told by the Task Force.

Other evidence demonstrating the bias of the Task Force’s “historical review” is within easy reach to those not limiting their review of the Review to sources cited by the Task Force in their footnotes. This often involves going to the primary sources the Task Force cited, then following those primary sources to other primary sources the Task Force did not cite which bear indirectly or directly on the Task Force’s account.

Beyond these first and second levels of primary source material, there is the critical matter of how the evidence is interpreted. Interpreting facts is the marrow of history. No one wants to read any historical review that declines to make judgments.

Wheaton’s Task Force does, in fact, give interpretations of sources, but the bias of those interpretations is often obvious. Then there are other interpretations obvious to the reader of the primary sources which are unmentioned by the Task Force.

Why unmentioned?

Because these interpretations cast doubt on the Task Force’s declaration that President Buswell was a racist. Interpretations unmentioned by the Task Force are never damning for President Buswell. They never weight the scales of justice against him.

When we used to pay with currency, I noticed cashier errors were as often in my favor as my loss. When a cashier would shortchange me, and with chagrin, apologize, I’d assure him that I’d noticed such mistakes were just as often made in my favor, and he shouldn’t worry about it. I’d smile. He’d smile.

No such reassurance could be given to the members of Wheaton’s Task Force. The interpretations missing from their Report all flow in one direction.

Examining some of the missing interpretations, we first return to President Buswell’s son, James O. Buswell III.

The Report incidentally mentions how, while serving as a professor of anthropology at Wheaton, Buswell III condemned segregation in educational institutions:

Buswell III raised the point that schools in the North, like Wheaton, were not immune from their own, less obvious, forms of racial discrimination [and he] named college admissions requirements…2

The conscientious historian would see this statement as a crucial fact for the proper interpretation of Buswell the Father’s own position on this same issue within this same institution. If President Buswell’s son condemned “racial discrimination” in Wheaton’s “college admissions requirements,” this should be brought forward by the Task Force as providing key interpretive light for any discussion of his father’s convictions concerning “racial discrimination” in Wheaton’s “college admissions requirements.”

There’s not a hint of any condemnation of the father by the son. Had there been, we can be certain the Task Force would have made much of it.

Tracing the son’s convictions back to his father is such an obvious line of interpretation that the objective reader will conclude its exclusion from the Report indicates the Task Force was either careless or devious.

Nevertheless, the Task Force only mentions these statements of Buswell the Son in connection with their discussion of the Wheaton faculty response to Brown v. Board of Education. In the year 1954. They never mention them in connection with Buswell the Father’s convictions concerning precisely the same issue at the same college fifteen years earlier.

This is unconscionable.

The good scholar anticipates lines of argument contrary to his thesis, raising them himself, then responding to them in a way that defends his own conclusions. The good scholar improves his opponent’s arguments for him, demonstrating his commitment to the pursuit of truth. This is “steel-manning,” the opposite of “straw-manning.”

No one familiar with the Report is surprised that the anti-segregation and anti-racism convictions and publications of Buswell the Son aren’t mentioned by the Task Force in defense of his father.

Turning to another example, the primary sources reveal a black woman’s application to Wheaton College being the subject of a protracted debate. On one side was a Wheaton trustee explicitly opposed to the admission of Blacks, and on the other was a constituent pastor explicitly in favor of Wheaton’s admission of Blacks. The men were arguing through President Buswell who was, himself, trying his best to mediate the conflict.

The prospective student was Rachel Boone, the opponent of the admission of Blacks was Trustee Hugo Wurdack, and the proponent of the admission of Blacks was Rev. Wyeth Willard. Both Wurdack and Willard were in correspondence with President Buswell at the time Boone’s application was under appeal.

But beyond the pressures being brought to bear on the president’s office by Trustee Wurdack and Pastor Willard, what pressures was President Buswell under from the board of trustees as a whole?

The tenuousness of President Buswell’s tenure in the midst of this conflict is illustrated by this letter to President Buswell from Trustee Wurdack. The letter’s date is, in fact, seven months prior to the Trustees’ termination of Buswell:

Contrary to the impression readers might take from the above, Trustee Wurdack had been a consistent opponent to the admission of Blacks to Wheaton.

It’s also important to note Trustee Wurdack’s acknowledgement concerning President Buswell’s push to begin admitting Blacks to Wheaton that he “does not think it would be wise to bring this matter up at this time.”

The only possible construction to put on this warning is that serious opposition to President Buswell’s desired change in admissions policy to the end that Blacks begin to be admitted remains among the Trustees as a whole.

Watching President Buswell drowning in the middle of the conflict, a good historian would go on to examine primary sources for evidence of these other tensions within the Board of Trustees at that time. What other pressures did the president face as he was mediating the conflict over racial admissions among his trustees? How intense and protracted were these other conflicts among Wheaton’s trustees?

Concerning admissions policies, how many Trustees were opposed to the admission of Blacks, and how many in favor? What pressures were the President and Trustees facing from the local community concerning Blacks moving to Wheaton and living there? Would applications and enrollment increase or decrease if Blacks were admitted? Would parents discourage their daughters from applying to a school that was integrated, racially? What was the feeling of the student body? What pressures was President Buswell under from faculty members?

Looking beyond the Report to primary sources easily available to anyone interested, it’s quickly apparent how deep a corner Buswell was backed into the final year of his presidency. Wurdack states it directly.` President Buswell was in the unenviable position of trying to put the best face on things, publicly, while anticipating the likelihood he was about to be fired.

Then, beyond Board relations, was Buswell concerned for Miss Boone’s wellbeing if she matriculated at Wheaton? Might he not have known she would receive a hostile reception from Wheaton’s residents? From the College’s faculty and students?

Reading through the Report, eventually readers find themselves being forced to conclude that Wheaton’s Trustees never wanted any true historical review. Page by page and footnote by footnote, it becomes more obvious the task the Task Force had been tasked with was the production of a history surgically trimmed to justify the condemnation of President Buswell.

It’s not hard to construct hypothetical thinking and discussions preceding the meeting of the Trustees in which the task force was approved and its task and membership defined:

Let’s call it the “historical review task force.” That sounds weighty. Scholarly.

But no outsiders in the group. Fill the group with our own trustees and employees. Staff members and faculty.

Make sure they’re team players.

Get some students and a few alums, but vet them carefully.

Tell them we will only accept a consensus report. We can’t have a minority report. That would be disastrous. This thing has to be unanimous.

If a couple members turn out not to be on board, get them to resign, but keep it quiet.

In fact, one or two members of the Task Force quietly resigned, then the Report was released and gained the unanimous support of the Board of Trustees.

In our next article, we’ll turn from Black New Jersey applicant, Rachel Boone, to Black Kentucky applicant, Nellie Bryant.

(Ninth in a series; 9,900 views as of 4/14/24)


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References
1”He,” “him,” and “man” are used as male inclusives. God Himself named the human race “Adam” (man; Genesis 5:2), and He inspired the authors of Scripture to use thousands of male inclusives across the sacred canon of Scripture.
2Report, p. 60. (It hasn’t been mentioned before, but President Ryken and the Trustees issued their 122-page Report in a protected format, denying readers the ability to copy their text.)

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