William Jewell administration says only it can determine the truth. Student researchers say otherwise
At William Jewell College’s annual undergraduate research colloquium April 22, three students involved with the Slavery, Memory, and Justice Project presented the group’s findings since beginning research in the fall of 2020, reactions to the group and its discoveries, and how the college’s slaveholding past impacts its future.
Part of the group’s research involved looking into Alexander Doniphan, a leading founder of the college.
Doniphan—a lawyer, politician, and soldier from Clay County—was the primary proponent of building the college in Liberty. He also raised $7,000 (about $240,000 today) to start the construction of William Jewell.
In her presentation, Hayley Michael, a senior at William Jewell College, spoke about how Doniphan’s enduring legacy at the college does not account for his pro-slavery views or the fact that he was an enslaver.
Doniphan was the director of the Clay County Pro-Slavery Society. He enslaved at least five people directly, and at one time, 18 enslaved people were listed under his wife’s name.
In 1837, while serving in the Missouri state legislature, Doniphan supported a bill that would have made it a crime to publicly support abolition. He even amended the bill to include incarceration in the state penitentiary if convicted.
“The research carried out by the SMJP shows that slavery was not a minor element and Doniphan’s life—it was one of the most central. From his earliest years until the abolition of slavery, Doniphan enslaved men, women, and children and benefited from their labor. He used some of the wealth he acquired from them to give money to William Jewell College,” Michael said.
A leadership institute, donor circle, and an endowment fund at the college are currently named after Doniphan.
An award for the senior male most likely to succeed was also named after Doniphan up until this year when the Student Senate voted to change the name to honor Bill “Pee Wee” Summers, one of the first African Americans to graduate from the college.
“As we discover new evidence about Doniphan and the other founders of William Jewell, we must shift our thinking to include the not-great parts about their lives,” Michael said in her talk. “We cannot pick and choose only the good parts to honor when we name colleges, societies, and leadership institutes after them—we must acknowledge the uncomfortable parts.”
Researching the college’s past despite opposition
In a lecture following the student presentations, Dr. Christopher Wilkins, professor of history at Jewell and leader of the SMJP, spoke about academic freedom and the difficulties of studying the school’s past.
When the SMJP began researching the college’s ties to slavery, members of the group attempted to collaborate with the Jewell administration.
Wilkins emailed the administration multiple times in the fall of 2020 about the SMJP and asked for institutional support. Later that semester, he emailed again about some of the group’s findings but received no response. In January, Wilkins emailed the administration yet again, this time about setting up a working group on the history of slavery at Jewell.
In response, Wilkins was told that the school’s cabinet did discuss studying the college’s history, but he was not invited to the meeting.
“I was told that I had not been invited to a discussion among the cabinet regarding slavery and Jewell’s history because I had class during that time,” Wilkins said. “The class I had at that time [was] the slavery class. I would have brought all 15 students in the class to that meeting.”
After multiple unsuccessful attempts by the SMJP to work with school administration, the college announced its own research group, the Racial Reconciliation Commission, in April of 2021.
Wilkins was initially offered a position on the RRC but declined because its original goal of studying the college’s entire history in one year was not up to academic standards. He also feared that the RRC would exclude the SMJP student researchers and use their findings without proper credit. Those fears would be proven correct.
“I was told that the administration believed the college should speak with one voice on its history and not have parallel narratives of the college’s history circulating. I teach my students about open intellectual inquiry, and that is not it,” said Wilkins. “The divide between the administration and SMJP continued to grow. It had become not just a policy issue, but a fundamental ideological issue.”
SMJP members conducted all of their research without support from the college or the use of its archives. Though given multiple reasons for not being able to use the school’s resources, Wilkins later found out that the RRC had access to the archives.
“SMJP students were not allowed in the college archives because of black mold, COVID, and archival disorganization,” Wilkins said in his presentation. “Yet, we learned that the college researchers were researching in the archives.”
In addition to the lack of access to the school’s archives, the administration continued to assert the RRC’s control over the school’s history. After an August report by the Kansas City Beacon, William Jewell College President Elizabeth MacLeod Walls emailed faculty and staff, saying that “it is the sole responsibility of the Commission to determine what is true.”
“Everyone should recognize that the authority to shape historical memory of a college’s past is not ultimately defined by institutional power,” Wilkins said. “The Jewell administration has sought to control the narrative, but the narrative cannot be controlled.”
Backlash to the RRC’s report
When the SMJP was in its early stages, Wilkins suggested that Jewell join the Universities Studying Slavery consortium. Dr. Rodney Smith, vice president for access and engagement at the college and commissioner of the RRC, said he was in contact with consortium members but did not want to join for fear of stifling research.
He also said the school did not intend to exclude the SMJP in forming the Racial Reconciliation Commission.
“We didn’t necessarily see it as two factions or two separate organizations. We were just seeing it as several organizations coming together under one big council,” Smith said.
One SMJP member, Hayley Michael, did join the RRC in an attempt to collaborate. However, she felt silenced throughout the process.
“I was the only student in a room of powerful vice presidents and trustees, and I felt like my voice was ignored,” Michael said. “When they sent the final report to the community, none of my edits made the published version.”
The report, published in January of this year, is on the college’s diversity page but was not advertised to the public. That was a problem for Steve Harris.
Harris graduated from William Jewell in 1987, worked in the school’s education department for two years, and briefly served on the Jewell Radical Inclusivity Alumni Council. He says the RRC’s report is another example of the college ignoring its history and the issues people of color on campus still face.
He sent a 12-page memo to Smith, the RRC, and the William Jewell College Black Alumni Association in response to the report. In it, Harris voiced concerns that the RRC ignored crucial historical context, attempted to salvage founders’ reputations, and included false information.
“Ultimately it felt to me that the Report was not serious about finding all of the history that is in fact discoverable,” Harris wrote in the memo. “It felt biased in both its approach and content, and it felt like it was working to lead the reader to a conclusion.”
Smith did reach out to Harris on behalf of the RRC and invited him to speak to the commission. But Harris said the conversation ended when he told Smith that he would call for Dr. Andrew Pratt’s resignation instead of presenting his research—all of which is accessible online.
Pratt, who is white, serves as the special counsel to the president for diversity and inclusion. He is also the RRC’s lead researcher and author of the report.
The RRC’s report repeatedly cites one of the official histories of the school promoted by the college—which has already been proven false in its references to slavery—and a speech given about the positive attributes of William Jewell. Harris says that the use of these two resources shows a general lack of research and an attempt to soften the horrors that the founders committed.
“The heavy reliance on these two documents as the foundation of the report also means the report is told from a white male point of view. This can hardly be described as radical inclusivity. Radical inclusivity has to mean more than an acknowledgment that some of the founders were enslavers,” Harris wrote. “If you wanted to really be radical, you might have started this report from the point of view of the enslaved.”
Michael had the same concerns as Harris when she read the first draft of the report. She ultimately resigned from the RRC after leaders ignored her critiques and did not remove the issues she found.
“When they sent the draft of the report to the commission members, I made note of the errors I saw and voiced those during our next meeting. Most of those changes were about Dr. Jewell’s history, the RRC’s interpretation of the founders as ‘good’ slaveholders, and the lack of the enslaved people’s voices,” said Michael. “Despite being rooted in research myself and other students did, I was met with criticism for the changes I suggested.”
Smith says he regrets the loss of Michael from the commission but sees the RRC as a forum for intellectual debate.
“That was never the intention to give some individuals on the commission a larger voice than anybody else,” Smith said. “If you have some intellectual discourse about the various points of views that are sitting around the table, then hopefully we come to an agreement on what we can then publish as a commission.”
Smith sees the initial RRC report as a draft the community can discuss before publishing more research. But Harris says that if the college truly wanted input from the community, they would have publicized the report’s release and asked for feedback.
“I want the college to understand that the gap between the promising language of valuing diversity, and actions such as this report are some of the things that create what feels like a hostile environment for students and alumni of color,” Harris says. “Even though I have long since let go of any expectation that the college will live up to its words, it is still emotionally tiring to have to experience it over and over.”
Tavarus Pennington, a Black student at William Jewell and a member of the SMJP, agrees. He believes the administration continues to avoid confronting the institution’s complete history and that changes need to be made.
“When we continue to avoid ugly facts about the founding of this institution, we persist in the same kinds of cultures that have historically existed here,” Pennington said during his colloquium presentation. “When we put aside our hopes and assumptions, we can soberly rearrange the identity of the institution in equitable and inclusive ways.”
The SMJP’s report comes after two years of research
After more than two years of research, the SMJP plans to publish its comprehensive report in December. That same month, Wilkins will leave the college. He says his decision to resign is due mainly to the administration’s treatment of the SMJP.
Smith says Wilkins will be greatly missed at Jewell. He hopes that Wilkins’ legacy and the research of the SMJP will continue. He says the new chairperson of the history department, who is yet to be announced, will foster that research.
“I hope that [Wilkins’] research inspires and ignites others to do it,” Smith said. “I know there are students who will still be here that have been a part of that work.”
During his lecture, Wilkins said the SMJP will dedicate the first pages of the report to the people enslaved by the college’s founders.
“The SMJP has been identifying the men, women, and children enslaved by the Jewell community. We have found 150. Those names will be on the first page of the comprehensive report we publish in December,” Wilkins said.
Over the past semester, the gap between the SMJP and RRC has widened. While the SMJP is no longer attempting to gain administrative approval, they hope for institutional acknowledgment.
“In all other historical instances of this kind of research, we don’t see this divide,” Pennington said. “Mediating that may not only contribute to the discoveries of the investigation of slavery at Jewell, but it may also allow us to figure out actual solutions—not only the issues with this history of slavery but the present issues of perceived racial division on campus.”
For Christian Santiago, a junior at the college and a member of the SMJP, community response to the forthcoming report is paramount.
He says there is no current effort to collaborate with the RRC, but “conversation is a great resource for that.” Still, he remains wary of the administration’s perceived infringement on academic freedom.
“While it is not impossible for both groups to act towards similar goals, it is difficult to walk a line of academic freedom when the active work done by one spills into the other,” said Santiago. “What message is sent to students trying to seek the truth and be recognized for those efforts if the official narrative has been endowed onto a different organization?”
For Harris, the only way the RRC can regain trust and maintain academic integrity is if the commission waits for the SMJP to release its report before progressing any further. Historical research of this magnitude needs a good foundation, which he says the SMJP is laying.
The students, alumni, and faculty involved in the SMJP need to be taken seriously to tell the complete history of the school.
“The students are not asserting sole responsibility to tell what is true about the college’s history,” Wilkins said. “We encourage you to read the RRCs narrative, read ours, and make up your mind. That is how open intellectual inquiry, enabled by academic freedom, is supposed to work.”
Learn more about the Slavery, Memory, and Justice Project:
Read more about the SMJP and RRC here.
Watch Hayley Michael, Christian Santiago, and Tavarus Pennington’s research presentation here.
Learn more about the RRC here.