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The history of William Peace University dates to 1857, when it was founded in Raleigh, N.C., as the Peace Institute. Several name changes later, it became Peace College, and it operated as a women’s college until 2012, when it admitted men and became a university.
William Peace was, for the 1850s, a generous philanthropist. His gift of $10,000 kicked off fundraising for the university. It was unusual for a man with means to direct that his funds go to women’s education.
But William Peace was also a slaveholder. Brian C. Ralph, the president of William Peace, said that was not generally known among students, alumni or the faculty at Peace, or certainly not discussed.
According to a report—a summary of which was released by the university this week—Peace enslaved 51 people as of the 1860 Census. In addition, enslaved people helped build the Main Building, a central building on the campus, which was previously used for a Confederate hospital and the Freedmen’s Bureau.
The committee that prepared the report also studied campus life.
“Past editions of the Peace yearbook, The Lotus (primarily prior to 1920), contain images and text that are objectionable, including racially stereotypical content and racial slurs. The 1946 edition is dedicated to Josephus Daniels who was complicit in the Wilmington Massacre of 1898,” said a summary released by the university.
Many colleges have debated what to do about buildings and monuments on their campuses that honor past slaveholders and segregationists. The University of Virginia continues to discuss what to do about the institution’s close association with Thomas Jefferson, for example. And people have known for years about Jefferson’s record on slavery.
William Peace is in another category, because the university only announced Tuesday that he was a slaveholder. But the university is not alone—Wingate University, also in North Carolina, discovered last year that it is named for a slaveholder.
In Wingate’s case, a study by Wake Forest University, where Washington Manly Wingate had been president, led to the information becoming known.
“This truth hurts,” said Wingate president Rhett Brown. “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.”
Wingate created a panel to recommend steps the university should take. But a few weeks after creating the panel, Brown announced that one thing would not be considered by the panel.
“I would first like to clear up an assumption some have made since the news first broke: Wingate University is NOT considering a name change,” he said.
That’s not the case at William Peace University. On Tuesday, the university removed a statue of Peace from the center of campus. And Ralph said that all options are on the table for the university’s name.
The Process at William Peace
Ralph said the university’s history was studied by a task force created after the racial justice protests held across the country in 2020 in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.
“As a reflection of the university’s commitment, a task force was created during the 2020–21 academic year to conduct research in key areas and identify parts of our history that are not consistent with our current values as an institution. We knew that to move forward, we must understand our history as an institution and where it may/may not intersect with white supremacy, slavery, and/or racism,” said the university’s announcement this week.
Ralph declined to say who served on the task force, citing the mixed reaction to its work. While many students and alumni have praised its work, some have not, he said. And some who have no connection to the college have been quite critical, to the point where Ralph said he worried about the safety of the task force if he revealed its members.
Over the next two weeks, the university will hold a series of listening sessions for students, alumni and faculty (and also listening sessions especially for students, alumni and faculty of color).
Ralph said there is much to be proud of at the university, even though its history, of course, includes the years of total segregation. No nonwhite student was admitted until 1973.
Today, of the total enrollment of 742, white students make up 51 percent, Black students 27 percent and Hispanics 12 percent. Men are now 46 percent of the student body.
“It was exclusively a white women’s college,” he said. “I hope that this process will make us more attractive to students.”