By Dallas Woodhouse
Carolina Journal News Service
RALEIGH — Could an obscure historical discovery force Wingate University and the town to change names? That question is roiling Wingate, a small Union County town 30 miles southeast of Charlotte.
It began with a phone call between two college presidents. Wake Forest University President Nathan Hatch reached out to the President of Wingate University Rhett Brown.
Hatch informed Wingate that Wake Forest found that Manly Wingate, whom the school is named for, had ties to slavery.
In 2018, WFU asked university staff to learn whether any of their buildings or statues were named after people with racist or other complicated backgrounds that could be viewed as scandalous today.
WFU sociology professor Joseph Soares found that “every president of Wake Forest until the Civil War had enslaved human beings under him.” That included Manly Wingate.
Wake Forest recently announced that its Wingate Hall will be renamed to “May 7, 1860 Hall” to memorialize the day the institution sold 16 people at a slave auction under Wingate’s presidency.
Under Wingate’s leadership, the 16 enslaved people were sold to fund Wake Forest’s initial endowment.
“By renaming this building, we acknowledge the University’s participation in slavery, recognize this aspect of our history and remember those who labored at the institution against their will. We hear their stories, learn their names and honor what they endured for our institution,” Hatch said in a statement.
Wake Forest also released an official statement of apology for parts of its past connected to slavery. Wingate University then followed up with an announcement of its own.
“This truth hurts. It casts a shadow over our university, my alma mater, and is not in keeping with who we are today, what we value, and how we strive to be more inclusive for the students who study here and the people who work here,” said Brown.
Brown announced the creation of a committee to figure out what to do next. The committee consists of trustees, students, faculty, alumni, and even town officials tasked to discuss options to address the issue, including changing the name of the school.
Wingate University is home to about 3,600 students combined on its three campuses: Wingate, south Charlotte, (Ballantyne), and Hendersonville, with most students attending its main campus in the Union County town of Wingate, which reported a population of 3,500 according to the 2010 census.
According to the university, overall enrollment has increased by 16% over the past five years. Undergraduate enrollment has increased by 37% during this same period.
While Wingate University is named after Manly Wingate, he had no real connection to what Wingate University is today.
In a message to its students and alumni, Wingate said no money from the sale of enslaved people was used to fund the university. The school was founded in 1896.
“Washington Manly Wingate had been dead for nearly two decades when the Wingate School was founded. He played no role in the University’s history,” the message read.
“Wingate University has established itself as a leading North Carolina university today, but it wasn’t even a college when it was founded in 1896,” reads the Wingate University historic records: The Baptist associations in Union County, N.C., and Chesterfield County, S.C., sought to provide literacy education from first grade through high school.”
At the time, public schools were scarce in the Carolina Piedmont. The location was chosen because it was close to the Seaboard Air Line Railway. It was close to Meadow Branch Baptist Church, too.
Because of the Baptist connections and a personal connection between some of the schools’ founders, trustees named it after a successful graduate of Wake Forest University, Washington Manly Wingate, a two-time university president.
Wingate changed with the times by offering the first two years of baccalaureate education in 1923. The college granted its first bachelor’s degrees in 1979. Notable alumni include former NBA player Lorinza “Junior” Harrington, former U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, and Leon Levine, founder of Family Dollar retail stores.
Recently, Wingate organized a campus-wide virtual meeting to discuss the school’s history.
“I hope that what happens is we grow stronger as an institution, and this isn’t something that breaks us but actually makes us a better place for all students, no matter where they come from or look like,” said Joseph Ellis, a Wingate professor.
No decision has been made on whether the school’s name will be changed, but alumni are speaking out. To them, the name “Wingate” is about far more than the university’s original namesake.
“The hallmarks of the University are delivering a spirit of selfless service, and providing outstanding academic opportunities for generations,” said former Union County District Attorney John Snyder, a 1995 English major graduate. “It has managed to do all of this under the name, Wingate University.”
“Alumni of many diverse backgrounds are speaking out against this name change because the name Wingate means more to alumni than just the name of a pastor that lived seven counties away a century ago,” Snyder continued “It means memories, friendships, and community excellence. … A name change can end the need to learn more from each other’s perspectives. It’s an endpoint that stifles dialogue about legacy and redemption.”
Many alumni, like Sherri Gamble, have posted their thoughts on various online forums. Gamble wrote:
“I graduated from there in 1983 and loved it! The past happened and we can’t change it, but we can sure make our future better by being decent human beings to each other.”
The controversy could ultimately affect the town of Wingate, although the town is named after the school, not Washington Manly Wingate.
Jerry Ratchford, a four-year starter on the offensive line and a member of the Wingate Sports Hall of Fame, offered his perspective as an African American. Ratchford graduated in 1992. He tells Carolina Journal that Wingate can and should address the past but can do so while keeping the Wingate name.
“I understand that a few people are upset about the possibility of a name change,” said Ratchford. “I love Wingate but not to acknowledge the pain of those that had to endure the hardships should not be overlooked. I believe that the name should remain Wingate, but I would also like to see some thought put into making some changes that would remove any harmful effects from the past. What if the shoe was on the other foot and it was established that whites were sold?”
“Just acknowledge the past and move on,” Ratchford concluded.
“I think it is a bad idea to change the name,” said Nicole Smith, class of 1995, who lives outside Atlanta. “As an alumnus, I think it is silly, no one knew the history when it was named, and we did not know about it when we got there. We are working so hard to change history, but you can’t. I don’t think it will help the school grow, by changing the name, and what does that say to us who graduated prior to 2021, what does it mean for those of us who have ‘Wingate’ stamped on our diplomas?”
No timetable has been set for the committee to offer recommendations on what to do next at Wingate.