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

The Wheaton employees who produced the Historical Review Task Force Report  claim the following correspondence between President Buswell and Trustee Hugo Wurdack is their “smoking gun” proving President Buswell was racist.

Here is that correspondence in its entirety:

May 17, 1939

Mr. Hugo Wurdack
5501 Lindell Boulevard
St. Louis, Missouri

Dear Mr. Wurdack,

Some years ago you spoke to me about Wheaton admitting colored students. At that time we had no colored students in the College, though there were one or two in the Academy. I think you thought our Filipino students were colored.

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.

Now there is a considerable amount of pressure being brought to bear upon me from certain quarters. If I should throw the question into an open meeting of either the faculty or the trustees, I believe the result would be an argument and a strong division of opinion. I am trying to avoid the issue while quietly advising colored applicants to go elsewhere. May I please have your advice?

Yours in Christian service,

JOB/AN

Not receiving a timely response, President Buswell repeated his request:

May 25, 1939

Mr. Hugo Wurdack
5501 Lindell Boulevard
St. Louis, Missouri

Dear Brother Wurdack,

I am trying to perform a difficult task. I really stand in great need of a reply to my letter of May seventeenth.

Very cordially yours,

JOB/AN

Two weeks after Buswell’s first letter, Wurdack finally responded:

June 2, 1939

Mr. J. Oliver Buswell
Wheaton College
Wheaton, Illinois

Dear Mr. Buswell:

I am in receipt of your communication in regard to the question of colored students to be admitted to the college.

While I have absolutely no prejudice against colored students and for my part would be willing that they should be admitted into the college, at the same time I do not think it would be wise to bring this matter up at this time. There are already a number of controversial matters before the Board with more to come. It would be my counsel to keep out of all controversies, so far as possible, even at the sacrifice of strong convictions.

Sincerely,

Hugo Wurdack (signed)

HW:ES

Seeking clarification, President Buswell followed up:

June 5, 1939

Mr. Hugo Wurdack
Railway Exchange Building
St. Louis, Missouri

Dear Mr. Wurdack,

Thank you for your letter of June second. Thank you very much indeed for the following statement which relieves the situation:—

“…I have absolutely no prejudice against colored students and for my part would be willing that they should be admitted into the college…”

I am enclosing a copy of a memorandum to Profesor Dyrness which I am now dictating, but which I will not send to him until I have had time to hear from you again, just in case I might have misunderstood your thought.

I am afraid you did not note the last paragraph of my letter. What you advise me to do is precisely what I said I intended to do. I am therefore taking the liberty of quoting that paragraph again.

“Now there is a considerable amount of pressure being brought to bear upon me from certain quarters. If I should throw the question into an open meeting of either the faculty or the trustees, I believe the result would be an argument and a strong division of opinion. I am trying to avoid the issue while quietly advising colored applicants to go elsewhere. May I please have your advice?”

Yours in Christian service

JOB/AW

Accompanying the above letter was this rough draft of the memo Buswell was in the middle of dictating to Wheaton’s registrar, Professor Enock Dyrness:

Copy to Mr. Wurdack

6-5-1939

Dear Mr . Dyrness

I have just received from Mr. Wurdack a letter which reads in part as follows:

“…I have absolutely no prejudice against colored students and for my part would be willing that they should be admitted into the college…”

Mr. Wurdack is the only one definitely connected with the College who has ever objected to our having colored students in any definite way. Evidently he has now a different point of view. I do not know of anyone else connected with the College who has ever committed himself on this point. I suggest therefore that you admit the colored girl recommended by Rev. Wyeth Willard of Newark, but I suggest that you keep the matter as quiet as possible and say nothing about it in any way which will be likely to provoke discussion.

As you know, I have been trying to dodge this issue. I cannot see that any moral principle is involved. I am inclined to think that it would be better in a practical way if colored people would go to their own colored schools such as Lincoln Institute in Kentucky. However, because of the great amount of pressure which has been brought to bear upon us xxxx [word exed out and “us” substituted] in this case, I suggest that we admit colored students hereafter. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx [several words exed out] We shall probably have objections from certain quarters, but we can simply avoid as much trouble as possible.

Please let me have your reactions to this suggestion.

Very cordially yours

P.S. I am holding this memorandum for two days, allowing time for Mr. Wurdack to make any further suggestions which may occur to his mind.

Finally, this from Trustee Wurdack:

June 6, 1939

Mr. J. Oliver Buswell
Wheaton College
Wheaton, Illinois

Dear Mr. Buswell:

I have your favor of June 5th.

I think you have interpreted my statement correctly.

As to the last clause in your letter, I agree fully with your suggestion of letting the colored applicants down easily, by advising them to find a school elsewhere.

Sincerely,

Hugo Wurdack (signed)

HW:ES

The above exchange between President Buswell and Trustee Hugo Wurdack is the “smoking gun” President Phil Ryken, the Trustees of Wheaton College, and their employees put forward as proof that President Buswell was racist. We will get back to the content of these letters, but first some important things to keep in mind.

First, remember what President Buswell’s own son, Professor James Oliver Buswell III, wrote opposing racism back in 1962. Here is an excerpt:

slavery itself was found on an ideology incompatible with Christianity, no matter how “Christian” were its forms. Likewise it is found by the social sciences and the prevailing legal opinion of our day that “separate but equal” public educational facilities are inherently unequal.

The segregation defense system retains most of the basic arguments regarding the Negro race that were incorporated into the slavery defense system.

Note this excerpt specifically condemns segregated education when segregated education is precisely what Wheaton’s Historical Review Task Force Report condemns Buswell the Father for promoting!

Buswell the Son spoke out and published a book opposing racism, and his doing so was not inimical to his father’s commitments, but the fruit of those commitments.

Second, remember what President Buswell’s spiritual son, Rev. Joseph Tate Bayly IV, wrote opposing racism back in 1956. Here is an excerpt:

The white Southerner usually is strongly against intermarriage and severe in punishing any Negro who has social contact with a white woman. Yet judging by the evidence of mulattos one sees in the South, many white men evidently treat Negro women as chattels. Surely a Christian should protest against such a sinful, hypocritical double standard.

A mild-mannered, elderly Pullman porter on the Southern Railroad put it this way several years ago: “We Negroes can’t understand why white men aren’t willing to sit next to our women, when they’re so ready to sleep with them.”

* * *

As I read the Word I find just one commandment with reference to forbidden marriages: for the Christian, marriage must be “in the Lord.” The unequal yoke is that which binds Christian with non-Christian, not one race with another. And in the Old Testament, the forbidden marriage for the Israelites was on the basis of those who did not know the Lord Jehovah, not on the basis of color.

Note this excerpt defends interracial marriage and was published eight years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act! Joe Bayly’s leadership opposing racism was the fruit of President Buswell’s influence on this son in the faith.

Third, President Buswell was having to mediate a host of conflicts at Wheaton, and many of Wheaton’s conflicts were coming to a head during the above exchange of correspondence.

Both on campus and within the Board of Trustees, these conflicts were over things such as the college’s standards of morality, secret societies, the fitness of the character of Wheaton’s football coach, and President Buswell’s partnership with J. Gresham Machen in the work of reform within the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA).

Buswell, Machen, and many of their fellow reformers had been expelled from their Presbyterian church three years earlier, in 1936, and Wheaton’s Trustees and donors disapproved of President Buswell’s involvement in church reform.

While working shoulder to shoulder with Machen for church reform, Buswell was also leading a college through a burgeoning growth in the student body, hiring of faculty, improving the college’s accreditation, the inevitable college campus imbroglios—and in the middle of the Great Depression, relentless budget crises.

The above correspondence displays the insecurity of President Buswell’s position at the time. He had become a tightrope walker.

Fourth, as the thirties drew to an end, the conflict over Black applicant Rachel Boone loomed large and threatened to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. It all came to a head in late 1939 and early 1940 as Buswell sought the Trustees’ approval for a permanent policy change to permit racially integrated education of Blacks and Whites at the college. The campus was already racially integrated in their lower grades, but Wheaton’s Trustees and faculty were divided over moving the campus integration up to the college level.

Returning to the correspondence itself, here are the smoking gun statements Ryken and his Trustees point to as proof of Buswell’s racism:

Some years ago …we had no colored students in the College

And what would President Ryken, his Trustees and employees say about this statement?

That President Buswell alone was responsible for the absence of Black students at the College level under his presidency and this absence was because he was a racist who despised Blacks.

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.

And what would President Ryken, his Trustees and employees say about these two statements?

That President Buswell thought it would be better to avoid coeducation of the races because he was a racist who despised Blacks.

That President Buswell was opposed to close social contact between Blacks and Whites because he was a racist who despised Blacks.

Now there is a considerable amount of pressure being brought to bear upon me from certain quarters.

And what would President Ryken, his Trustees and employees say about this statement?

That “certain quarters” were having to pressure President Buswell because he was a racist who despised Blacks.

I am trying to avoid the issue while quietly advising colored applicants to go elsewhere.

And what would President Ryken, his Trustees and employees say about these statements?

That President Buswell was trying to avoid discussion of Black college integration among Trustees and faculty because he was a racist who despised Blacks.

That President Buswell advised Blacks to go elsewhere because he was a racist who despised Blacks.

As you know, I have been trying to dodge this issue.

And what would President Ryken, his Trustees and employees say about this statement?

That President Buswell was trying to dodge the issue because he was a racist who despised Blacks.

I cannot see that any moral principle is involved.

And what would President Ryken, his Trustees and employees say about this statement?

That President Buswell saw no moral principle at stake because he was a racist who despised Blacks.

I am inclined to think that it would be better …if colored people would go to their own colored schools…

What would President Ryken, his Trustees and employees, say about this statement? \

That President Buswell wanted Blacks at Black colleges because he was a racist who despised Blacks.

I suggest therefore that you admit the colored girl

And finally, this statement also: what would President Ryken, his Trustees and employees, say?

That President Buswell was admitting Miss Rachel Boone over his own personal preference against admitting her. That he was forced to do this by all the enlightened Trustees, donors, faculty members, and students clamoring for Blacks and Whites to study, eat, and live together within Wheaton College.

Another view

President Phil Ryken along with his Trustees and employees have judged President Buswell uncharitably, and this is sin.

If any of us were to put ourselves in President Buswell’s shoes, we would easily see ourselves doing as he did. If President Ryken and his Trustees were to put themselves in President Buswell’s shoes, they would easily see themselves doing as he did. With them, we would do well to ask ourselves what we would have done differently?

There were numerous conflicts dividing Wheaton’s college campus when Miss Rachel Boone’s application arrived. A few years earlier, President Buswell’s predecessor, President Charles Blanchard, had accepted a black woman, Miss Nellie Bryant, to Wheaton College, and the women of the college refused to room or eat with her. It was national news and Miss Bryant was forced to leave Wheaton’s campus. The scandal was notorious and left a bitter taste in the mouth of every Wheaton faculty member, trustee, and member of the administration. President Blanchard’s wife blamed her husband for the scandal, telling the press that all of it was her husband’s fault for not informing anyone the woman was Black.

President Buswell was facing a similar situation with Miss Rachel Boone, also Black.

What was he to do? He was walking a tightrope with his trustees up in arms over budget crises, conflicts over moral standards on campus, the moral fitness of the college’s football coach, and his own notoriety for reform work opposing heresy within the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Buswell had been forced out of his denomination while many pastors and elders with influence among Wheaton’s trustees had remained within that denomination. They had hunkered down and continued to serve within the denomination. They resented Buswell’s prophetic witness and pushed for Buswell’s removal from Wheaton.

What was he to do?

Walking his tightrope, President Buswell obeyed Scripture’s command:

If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. (Romans 12:18)

Whether White or Black, who would fault President Buswell for “quietly advising colored applicants to go elsewhere” knowing of the previous ostracism of Miss Nellie Bryant by Wheaton’s female students?

Whether White or Black, knowing of the national scandal of Wheaton’s college women refusing to eat or share a room with Miss Nellie Bryant, who would fault President Buswell for writing:

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.

Whether White or Black, who would fault a president facing a Board of Trustees, donor base, and faculty ready to divide over integrated education with stating:

I am trying to avoid the issue while quietly advising colored applicants to go elsewhere.

You say he should have forced the issue? You say he should have faced down Trustee Hugo Wurdack who, in response to the president’s attempt to get the Trustees’ approval for admitting Miss Rachel Boone, wrote:

It would be my counsel to keep out of all controversies, so far as possible, even at the sacrifice of strong convictions.

Well, read the correspondence. President Buswell did, in fact, face down Trustee Wurdack. In his rough draft of the memo, Buswell summarized Burdack’s position as follows:

I have just received from Mr. Wurdack a letter which reads in part as follows:

“…I have absolutely no prejudice against colored students and for my part would be willing that they should be admitted into the college…”

Registrar Enock Dyrness didn’t have the letter, but only what Buswell reported above. The construction President Buswell put on Wurdack’s correspondence is humorous if we forget what was at stake. Buswell cornered Wurdack, and came through with the victory.

The chess match ended with Miss Rachel Boone accepted by Wheaton College. The moves were back and forth, left and right, up and down, but in the end Miss Rachel Boone was admitted to Wheaton College.

Not only that, but President Buswell decreed that, henceforth, Wheaton would accept all Black applicants!

Then he was fired.

And, get this, eighty-three years later, white-privileged President Phil Ryken, his white-privileged Trustees, and all the faculty and staff employees on Rykens lily-white-privileged Historical Review Task Force condemned the man as a racist.

How should we put it?

So far as it depends on you, leave no good deed unpunished.

If you get the chance, slander your fathers in the faith. They can’t defend themselves. They’re dead.

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


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