What to Do If You ‘Discover’ a History of Slavery in Your Church, College or Institution?

bronze statue of Judge Baylor, founder of Baylor University, on the campus of his namesake university in Waco, Texas
A bronze statue of Judge Baylor, founder of Baylor University, on the campus of his namesake university in Waco, Texas. (Photo: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune)

With increasing attention to the roots of American slavery in religious life, more churches and faith-based ministries that existed prior to the Civil War are unearthing truths they wish weren’t true.

Then the hard questions arise: How should a church, university or organization that discovers its founders or in rare cases even the organization itself owned slaves respond to such a revelation? How should such institutions respond when it becomes known that some of their buildings were erected by slave labor or financed by the sale of enslaved persons?

This is the dilemma currently facing Baylor University, where the board of regents recently released a 90-page report detailing the slave-owning history of its founders and a set of recommendations for response. Typifying the political divisions in America today over systemic racism, to some, the Baylor report and its recommendations go too far and to others the recommendations offer too little.

One thing Baylor said it will not do is change the school’s name, even though there is documented evidence that its namesake, R.E.B. Baylor, was a slaveholder. The Baylor name also graces other prominent institutions in Texas, including the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, Baylor College of Medicine, and Baylor Scott and White Health, the largest nonprofit health care system in Texas.

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