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

Denouncing President J. Oliver Buswell a racist, Wheaton’s Task Force claims their smoking gun is the 1939 correspondence and minutes surrounding Black female Rachel Boone’s application for admission. As they record it, her application was rejected, then accepted. The Task Force places the sole blame for Boone’s initial rejection on President Buswell:

We lament the de facto policy of race-based discrimination against African American applicants to Wheaton under President J. Oliver Buswell …at Buswell’s direction 1

“Under” President Buswell.

“At Buswell’s direction.”

As President Ryken and the Trustees’ tell the story, racial admissions practices were reflective of President Buswell’s racism. He was solely responsible for them. Not Wheaton’s Registrar, and certainly not Wheaton’s Trustees, faculty, or students.

Buswell under siege

But note Ryken and the Trustees’ admission of the deeply conflictual climate President Buswell was navigating with his trustees, at that time:

Buswell’s final action with regard to Rachel Boone was a compromise of sorts: he decided to support her admission but to do so under the radar, if possible. In a letter to registrar Enock Dyrness, Buswell seized on Wurdack’s statement that he “would be willing” for Black students to be admitted and so instructed Dyness [sic] to admit Rachel Boone, cautioning him at the same time “to keep the matter as quiet as possible and say nothing about it in any way which will be likely to provoke discussion.” Noting “the great amount of pressure which has been brought to bear upon us in this case,” Buswell concluded his memo to Registrar Dyrness by suggesting that “we admit colored students hereafter.”

Here the Report documents intense conflict between President Buswell and his Trustees over a number of things, with the admission of Blacks central to the volatility. In its verbiage, the Task Force can’t help but document that conflict:

  • The acceptance of Boone was a “compromise.”
  • Her admission was to be kept “under the radar.”
  • Buswell “seized” on Trustee Wurdack’s words saying he’d changed his mind and would be willing to admit Boone, now.
  • Immediately, Buswell directed his registrar, Enock Dyrness, to accept Rachel Boone.
  • Buswell warned Dyrness to “keep the matter as quiet as possible.”
  • Buswell warned Dyrness to “say nothing about it in any way which will be likely to provoke discussion.”
  • Buswell reminded Dyrness that the reason for all these discretionary steps was “the great amount of pressure which has been brought to bear upon us.”

Why was Black applicant Rachel Boone not admitted right away? Why was this specific conflict so intense?

President Buswell inherits racist legacy

A critical part of the answer to these questions lies with Charles Blanchard, Buswell’s immediate predecessor as president of Wheaton College.

Seventeen years before President Buswell was hired, Wheaton College had suffered a scandal that reached national proportions. This scandal started with President Charles Blanchard accepting a Black female applicant for mid-year matriculation, Winter/Spring Semester of 1909.

This young woman’s name was Nellie Bryant, and her application to Wheaton was the result of her being expelled from Berea College in southeast Kentucky.

Berea College had expelled Bryant because she was Black, but this was no negative reflection on Berea College.

Berea College

Some background. In the years building up to the Civil War, Berea College had the same abolitionist commitment as Wheaton College under the presidency of Charles Blanchard’s father, abolitionist Jonathan Blanchard.

But Kentucky was middle south where Berea’s anti-slavery commitments were not tolerated as well as Jonathan Blanchard’s in Wheaton.

Thus, in 1859:

In Kentucky a mob drove thirty-nine people associated with an antislavery church [Glades Church] and school at Berea out of the state.2

Some years later, following the Civil War, the town of Berea, a church there named Union,3 and Berea College were all continuing their commitment to interracial community, cooperating in promoting integrated civic life, church life, land ownership, and education. By 1870, 200 Black families lived in Berea and the surrounding area, and Black men were serving alongside White men as their congregation’s deacons and assistant to the pastor.

Berea College itself had been interracial almost since its founding in 1855, and this commitment to integrated education continued to the end of the nineteenth, and into the early twentieth, century. The college had both Black and White students as well as Black and White faculty members.

Given this history, why was it that, in 1908, Berea College expelled Nellie Bryant?

Berea College’s interracial education shut down by Kentucky legislature/Supreme Court of United States

Racism has been, and still is, a constant across man’s history, and following the Civil War racism was alive and well in Kentucky. Thus, in 1904, Kentucky’s legislature passed the Day Law prohibiting interracial education. Since Berea was the state’s only integrated educational institution, the Day Law was specifically intended to shut down Berea College’s integration. The law was titled, An Act to Prohibit White and Colored Persons from Attending the Same School.

But Berea College continued its interracial education, and soon the state responded by fining the college $1,000 ($33,500 today).

The college appealed, but the Kentucky Court of Appeals sustained the law and fine. Berea College then appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court, but in 1908, the Court issued their ruling, Berea College v. Kentucky, sustaining Kentucky’s law.

Having come to the end of their legal options, Berea College was forced to expel their Black students.

Founding of Lincoln Institute

Yet Berea College continued their commitment to the education of Black students. At their Board meeting May of 1904, Berea’s trustees voted to found what was named Lincoln Institute. It was the first educational institution in Abraham Lincoln’s birth state which bore his name. This is the school that, three decades later, Wheaton’s president, J. Oliver Buswell, recommended to Black young men and women.

Berea College’s sister institution,4 Lincoln Institute, was well-funded. Andrew Carnegie was one prominent supporter, giving the school a matching grant of $200,000 ($6.5 million today).

Wheaton College coeds cause national scandal

Following the loss of appeal before the Supreme Court, one of the students expelled from Berea was the previously mentioned Nellie Bryant. Bryant had heard President Charles Blanchard speak and was impressed, so she decided to transfer to Wheaton College. Contacting President Charles Blanchard in late 1908, Bryant asked if she could be accepted for matriculation mid-year, in January 1909.

She was accepted and college administrators announced her imminent arrival to Wheaton’s female students.

All one-hundred of Wheaton’s women students greatly anticipated this Kentucky coed’s arrival, but as soon as she arrived, the welcome turned into ostracism.

The conduct of Wheaton’s women hit the national news. Here are accounts from several Illinois newspapers, the first taken from the February 5, 1909, Belvidere, Illinois, Republican-Northwestern:

Race Question at Wheaton College

Staid and peaceful Wheaton college faces the problem of race distinction. Students are aroused and members of the faculty rack their brains In distraction today over the arrival of nineteen year old Nellie Bryant, colored, a former student at Berea College,

Giris Draw the Color Line.

White girls, more than one hundred of whom live at the college, have refused to eat at the same table with the new student. They have refused to occupy rooms in the vicinity of her room. The faculty has taken the girl under its care. Temporarily she eats at the faculty table and sleeps in a room in the faculty dormitory.

Miss Bryant, who is pretty for her race, brown eyed, curly haired, but black as the ace of spades, reached Wheaton Friday. She was expected. Her correspondence with officials of the school had in no way intimated her color. When she reached the school there was a storm of protest.

She was completely ostracized.

Her arrival had been expected. Members of the faculty had announced that a new student would be received late in the week from Kentucky. A Kentucky girl, whom the students believed would be a regular southern belle was expected. There was rivalry among the girls in the dormitory for her company. More than a dozen requested that she be assigned as their roommate.

Faculty Members Surprised.

The faculty was surprised as the student body. Today the teachers are in a dilemma over the situation. They wonder whether or not they can legally reject her. Officials are said to have sought legal advice. It is declared to be evident that Miss Bryant won’t stay if the school don’t have to keep her.

The United States supreme court recently upheld Berea college in its attempt to refuse admission to colored students [sic] and it is declared that the ruling of the tribunal is having its affect now at Wheaton.

The February 2, 1909, Rockford (Illinois) Morning Star:

NEGRO GIRL AT WHEATON STIRS SCHOOL

Competition to have new pupil as roommate before color was known.

SCHOOL IN A TURMOIL.

Preparations to Welcome New Student Turned to Dismay When Her Race Became Known– Result Uncertain.

Wheaton Ill. ; February 1.—Coeds at the Congregational college at Wheaton are in a furore today over the arrival at the fashionable institution of a young negro woman. The college authorities may have to take charge with a heavy hand in order to bring quiet out of the affair.

The young woman, Miss Nelly Bryant, was recently put out of the Perea [sic] college in Kentucky as the result of a race war and her advent in Wheaton threatens to precipitate the same struggle.

In the case of the Perea college, the authorities there took the case to the United States supreme court, and gained the power to exclude negro pupils from the school [sic].

Had Planned Reception.

Miss Bright’s [sic] arrival at the Wheaton school was looked forward to with much pleasure by the coeds, no intimation of her race having been received.

Preparations for her arrival were pushed enthusiastically, but the joy turned into a bomb when the young woman reached the college campus Saturday.

The officers of the college recently received an application from Miss Bright, who is twenty rears old, stating that she wished to enter the northern institution. All arrangements were made for her matriculation and the woman students at the college entered into a contest for the honor of having the newcomer as a roommate. A “daughter of a rich southern family” does not come to Wheaton college every day.

President Blanchard was absent on an eastern trip and had spoken to no one of Miss Bright’s [sic] race, if he knew it himself. The officers of the college were hurriedly called into consultation and consideration if the question was begun.

Given Room to Self.

The first thing was to assign Miss Bright [sic] to a separate room and then still the prospective complaints of Miss Felber. Nothing more than this was accomplished, for no one knows exactly what to do while the president is away.

Miss Mabel Felber was the coed first selected by the dean of women to share her sleeping room with Miss Bright [sic]. Miss Felber was absent from the town when the southern girl arrived.

Miss Bright [sic] is at present the only negro woman in the institution, according to a statement made today by Mrs. Blanchard, wife of the president, and there is only one man of negro parentage. Mrs. Blanchard declares that the trouble was caused by the president’s negligence to inform any other member of the faculty of the young woman’s race.

The February 3, 1909, Streator (Illinois) Free Press:

COLORED GIRL AT WHEATON

Miss Nellie Bryant of Kentucky Stirs College.

Wheaton, Ill., Feb. 3. After having dissuaded a colored colony from settling in its midst, Wheaton citizens and college students are again stirred over the arrival of Miss Nellie Bryant, a colored girl from Kentucky, who applied for admission several weeks ago and was accepted under the impression that she was white.

Miss Bryant was a former student at Berea college, and left with other colored students when a recent United States supreme court decision granted the college the right to exclude colored students [sic].5

Fair coeds of Wheaton college, who had been quarreling for several days before her arrival over who should have the fair Kentuckian as roommate, are now ostracizing Miss Bryant, who is compelled to eat at the faculty table at the college dormitory.

President Buswell inherits racist legacy

Wheaton’s Task Force mentions this episode in passing, but what do they say about its significance and how it impacted Wheaton’s racial admissions in coming years?

…the experiences of Bryant …may suggest that while Wheaton’s official position permitted students of color, the social environment of the campus was not consistently welcoming.6

“May suggest… the social environment of the campus was not consistently welcoming?” What a farcical thing to say.

It’s hard to imagine the shame our sister in Christ, Nellie Bryant, felt as she left Wheaton College. The racist conduct most obvious on the part of Wheaton’s female students utterly humiliated her, then it was publicized in newspapers across the state and nation.

The racism is appalling. What a blot upon the Name of Jesus Christ!

This we all agree upon, today. But here in 2023, our agreement costs each of us precisely nothing.

Back to President Phil Ryken and the Trustees’ denunciation of former President Buswell as a racist.

This national scandal of the abuse of a black sister in Christ by all one-hundred of Wheaton’s female students was in 1909, a mere seventeen years before President Buswell’s arrival.

In 2006, seventeen years ago:

  • The U.S. was at war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Robert Altman, Milton Friedman, Jaroslav Pelikan, and Betty Friedan died.
  • Pixar released Cars.
  • Google bought YouTube.
  • Five years earlier, in 2001, Arab terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center.

These things are not the latest news, but we still know the names and stories. All of us use YouTube, watch CARS, and remember 9/11 acutely. 9/11 happened twenty-two years ago, but its memory hangs heavy on all of us.

The shame Wheaton College suffered nationally from newspapers reporting the hateful racism of Wheaton’s women poured out on Miss Nellie Bryant would have been fresh in the minds of faculty, alumni, and trustees when J. Oliver Buswell was inaugurated as President of Wheaton. This point needs to be made, then made again, then hammered home.

Miss Nellie Bryant, it was reported, was “pretty for her race,” “but black as the ace of spades.”

But there’s more.

Wheaton College is in the middle of the City of Wheaton, and the City of Wheaton is in the state of Illinois. Were the City of Wheaton and the state of Illinois “consistently welcoming” of Blacks at the time, or were Wheaton’s racist coeds an anomaly?

Other racism in 1908: Illinois and the Springfield Race War

Just five months before Miss Bryant’s arrival, a massive race war broke out downstate in Springfield, Illinois. Following the arrest of two black men accused of raping two white women,7 between 5,000 and 10,000 white men attacked Springfield’s Black citizens. The riots continued for three days. The race “war” was only brought to an end when the militia was called up. Forty homes of Black families were burned to the ground and sixteen died.

Returning to President Buswell’s statement in his letter to Trustee Hugo Wurdack explaining why he discouraged Blacks from coming to Wheaton:

I have no race prejudice in my heart. I have in the past twice seriously considered full time Christian service in a field wholly devoted to colored people. However, I have felt that for a small Christian school where the social contacts are so close, it would be better to avoid coeducation of the races. I have advised colored students to go to Lincoln Institute, Lincoln Ridge, Kentucky.

This is the Task Force’s supposed smoking gun proving President Buswell’s racism.

Yet now, after reading how, in Wheaton’s recent past, Wheaton’s one-hundred female students united in forcing Nellie Bryant out of her room and out of their student dining hall, how is the blame placed solely on President Buswell for the absence of Black students studying at Wheaton College? Is it hard to understand why President Buswell would want to protect Black students’ from bearing similar shame at the hands of his trustees or female students?

How can the Springfield race war and the ostracism of Nellie Bryant on the campus of his college not be presented by Wheaton’s Task Force as a likely explanation of President Buswell’s statement that he “felt that for a small Christian school where the social contacts are so close, it would be better to avoid coeducation of the races?”

Nevertheless, the Task Force Review never brings this shameful episode to bear on the risks J. Oliver Buswell faced as the president of Wheaton College in dealing with Black enrollment.

There’s more context the scholars paid to produce the Report left out. We’ve examined the state of Illinois and the racist expulsion of Nellie Bryant. Now let’s turn to the local community of Wheaton where Wheaton College resides.

Chicago Golf Club (Wheaton)

Other racism in 1908: Chicago Golf Club

Careful readers of the above news accounts would have noticed this brief mention in the Streator Free Press:

After having dissuaded a colored colony from settling in its midst, Wheaton citizens and college students are again stirred over the arrival of Miss Nellie Bryant, a colored girl from Kentucky

The town of Wheaton had “dissuaded a colored colony from settling in its midst.” What is this about?

Today, on the southern edge of Wheaton, sits the oldest eighteen-hole golf course in the United States. Named the Chicago Golf Club, no one would be surprised to learn Wheaton’s wealthiest continue to reside there.

Chicago Golf Club prides itself in being the fifth most exclusive golf club in the world. Women and blacks were excluded until 1991. The club is private and has only 120 members. My nephew caddied at the course. The in-laws of my best friend’s son live on property bordering the course. When I was in high school and worked painting, one of my clients owned a mansion next to the course. After he moved in, I stained his new horse barn and the cedar fencing around the field. He was a member of College Church in Wheaton where we Baylys attended, and he was wealthy.

And if we do our own “historical review” of the Wheaton citizens and their Chicago Golf Club a century ago?

A few months prior to Wheaton College’s humiliation of Nellie Bryant, a group of Blacks tried to buy twelve acres of land abutting the Chicago Golf Club. They planned to build a Black community there, but Wheatons’ citizens were up in arms and refused to allow the Blacks to settle in their midst.

The opposition to the Black community was led by the president of the Chicago Golf Club. He declared this proposed settlement of negroes would cut the value of property adjoining his golf club in half.8 Wealthy whites living next to Wheaton’s Chicago Golf Club today have the Club’s president, Robert T. Lincoln, to thank for their property values.

Lincoln’s father?

President Abraham Lincoln.

Summing up

In 1908 while Jonathan Blanchard’s son, Charles Blanchard, was president of Wheaton College, the state of Illinois suffered a race war in which 5,000 to 10,000 white men attacked Springfield’s Black community. The war lasted three days. Whites burned down forty homes of Black families and sixteen people died.

In 1908 while Jonathan Blanchard’s son, Charles Blanchard, was president of Wheaton College, the City of Wheaton shut down a group of Black families buying twelve acres for the founding of a Black community there. Wheaton’s citizens were led in their successful efforts to shut down this Black community by Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert.

Six months later, in January of 1909, the one-hundred women students at Wheaton College refused to eat or sleep in the same room with Miss Nellie Bryant, “pretty for her race …but black as the ace of spades.” She got the message and left.

Jonathan Blanchard’s daughter-in-law married to Wheaton’s president, Charles Blanchard, told the press it was all her husband’s fault. Rockford Morning Star reported:

[A]ccording to a statement made today by Mrs. Blanchard, wife of the president, [she] declares that the trouble was caused by the president’s negligence to inform any other member of the faculty of the young woman’s race.

Charles Blanchard

Sixteen years later, J. Oliver Buswell Jr. succeeded Charles Blanchard as the president of Wheaton College. He encouraged Black men and women to study at Berea College’s sister institution, Lincoln Institute. He was hesitant to encourage Black students to attend Wheaton College.

Wheaton’s Historical Review Task Force seizes on this, denouncing President Buswell as the racist.

From the lofty altitude of such high moral dudgeon, how then do they report the national scandal of Wheaton women expelling Miss Nellie Bryant from their campus?

…the experiences of Bryant …may suggest that while Wheaton’s official position permitted students of color, the social environment of the campus was not consistently welcoming.9

From the beginning when President Ryken and the Trustees appointed their “Historical Review” Task Force, the fix was in.

Forget the Springfield Race War.

Forget President. and Mrs. Charles Blanchard.

Blanchard Hall will keep its name.

Blanchard Hall

Forget the Chicago Golf Club.

Their president was Robert T. Lincoln and his dad was President Abraham Lincoln.

Forget Nellie Bryant.

Wheaton’s president was Charles Blanchard and his dad was abolitionist Jonathan Blanchard.

Buswell was the racist.

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


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References
1Report, p. 20.
2McPherson, James M.. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6) (p. 213). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
3Glades Church had split with the pro-slavery members retaining the church and name.
4At the time, Berea’s leadership likened their relationship with Lincoln Institute to the relationship between Harvard and Radcliffe.
5Newspaper accounts mistakenly attributed the court case to the administration of Berea College when, in fact, it was a hostile action by the Kentucky legislature against Berea’s interracial history and present enrollment.
6Report, p. 45.
7They were also accused of murdering the father of one of the women.
8”Negro Colony Got a Black Eye.” Wheaton Illinoian, June 25, 1909. As cited in https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/jillistathistsoc.112.3.0293.
9Report, p. 45.

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