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A. Christian van Gorder, Board of Contributors: Baylor’s history mirrors our nation’s in matters of race

A. Christian van Gorder, Board of Contributors: Baylor’s history mirrors our nation’s in matters of race

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Every February, our nation pauses to consider the importance of African-American history. As part of this commemoration, Baylor University holds programs to help students learn more about black history. But we should also be reminded that Baylor has not always lived up to its Christian ideals.

Baylor was founded in 1845 by devout Christians such as Judge Robert Emmett Bledsoe (R.E.B.) Baylor who, like many of his time, believed slavery was a god-ordained reality. The judge initially owned two slaves to work his small farm and, according to tax records, by 1860 he owned at least 20 slaves valued at more than $18,000.

In his role as a judge, he once punished an abolitionist harboring an escaped slave. Another man was punished for not returning a borrowed slave promptly. In 1854, Judge Baylor sentenced a slave to hang for arson. That year he assumed leadership of the Texas Know-Nothing Party, dedicated to making “Texas pure by keeping out foreigners and Catholics.” In 1856, he ordered the execution of yet another slave. In 1857, he levied a heavy fine on a white person who bought some bacon from a slave. And in 1862, as the Civil War raged, he ordered the execution of a slave for “intent to rape a white female.”

Yet his Christian faith led Judge Baylor to encourage Sunday services for his slaves.

Today these conflicting actions strike many of us as un-Christian. But Judge Baylor was not alone in his thinking. Eleven of Baylor’s first 15 trustees were slave holders. All of the university’s first buildings (in the community of Independence, 112 miles south of Waco, site of Baylor University’s first 41 years) were built by slave labor.

At the start of the Civil War, 151 male students, along with many faculty members, enlisted in the Confederate Army. Males who didn’t enlist were given military training on campus, which became a staging facility for transitioning soldiers. During the war, Baylor’s president, William Carey Crane, declared: “I would make no terms with the Yankees. We have no right to free our slaves. God has placed them in their present condition for the African race and it is our duty to contend for it to the bitter end.”

Disabled soldiers and children of the fallen were granted free tuition as a way for the university to show further support for the Confederacy.

After the war, Judge Baylor supported the Baptist State Convention’s motion accepting “Negroes as good and loyal citizens, and as a body of Christians.” But as the Jim Crow era took root, the judge feared Texas was being overrun by a “negro militia.” In 1866 he wrote that because of “indolent habits” the “free Negroes will not do work with a few exceptions. Do not misunderstand me, I do not mean the Negro must be made a slave again to compel him to work. I simply mean he must be forced to work in some way, otherwise they will become vagabonds.”

Though the first African student attended Baylor in 1921, it was not till 1964 that the first African-American student was enrolled.

Baylor has come a long way since 1845, hosting an increasingly diverse student body while many members of the Baylor family continue to chart an even brighter future of inclusivity. While nothing is gained from festering over the racist blind-spots of our founding fathers, neither should we ignore our painful history. It should serve as a reminder of how our academic and faith communities have progressed over time — and how they continue to move toward even greater justice and inclusion.

A. Christian van Gorder teaches world religions at Baylor.

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