In early 19th century North Carolina, an area in Wake County north of Raleigh that was known for its forest of fine hardwood trees was called the Forest of Wake. The newly formed Baptist State Convention purchased a large plantation in that area in 1833 from Dr. Calvin Jones. Their goal was to begin the Manual Labor Institute to provide a Christian education for ministers and laymen. Dr. Samuel Wait, a Baptist minister, was selected as the “principal.” The first student to enroll was John Crenshaw, a 12-year old son of a nearby merchant and farmer.
In its inaugural year, the school’s seventy students lived in the former cabins of Dr. Jones’ enslaved workers and attended classes in the carriage house. The curriculum emphasized Greek, philosophy, Latin, and mathematics. All students and staff were required to spend half of each day doing manual labor on the plantation.
Academic life at the College was strenuous and professors were demanding. Discipline was strict with most offenses handled simply by expulsion. Morning prayers were held daily and mandatory worship services took place each Sunday. The primary recreational activities were centered in the literary societies, the Euzelian and the Philomathesian. They emphasized research, debating, and public speaking.
To raise funds to keep the school open during early financial troubles, the presidents spent much of their time traveling to Baptist congregations to plead for donations. In addition, the school’s trustees voted to sell some of its property for homes and shops. Eventually, businesses emerged in the area beyond the railroad tracks to meet the needs of the growing school and the surrounding residents. The town of Wake Forest College was founded in 1880 and was chartered as the town of Wake Forest in 1909.
In the years before the Civil War, the College continually had to deal with financial problems created in part by low enrollment. A short period of growth and expansion under President Washington Wingate (1849) was ended with the onset of the Civil War. All the school’s students but five were conscripted into the Confederate Army, and the College was forced to close in 1862. At the war’s end, sixty-seven Wake Forest students had lost their lives, only two professors were available to teach and the campus buildings were in disrepair.
The College re-opened in 1866 and prospered over the next four decades under the leadership of presidents Wingate, Thomas Pritchard, and Charles Taylor. The endowment increased, the number of faculty doubled, academic departments grew from eight to thirteen, enrollment rose, three buildings were constructed, and law and medical schools were begun. During this period the appearance of the campus was greatly improved with the plantings of hundreds of trees and the building of a stone wall on its perimeter by a beloved custodian, Tom Jefferies. Intercollegiate sports were also introduced.
Enrollment was depleted during World War I but began to rise steadily after the conflict. The leading college figure in the early 20th century was Dr. William Poteat (1877), a gifted biologist and the first layman to be elected president in the College’s history. “Dr. Billy” continued to promote growth, hired many outstanding professors, and expanded the science curriculum. He also stirred upheaval among North Carolina Baptists with his strong support of teaching the theory of evolution but eventually won formal support from the Baptist State Convention for academic freedom at the College.
When the College celebrated its centennial in 1934, there were forty-one faculty members. The senior class numbered forty, including one woman. Sixty-two medical students were enrolled, and sixty-seven students were in the law school. Enrollment dropped to 474 during World War II as students left to join the war effort. To supplement the loss of enrollment, the College changed its admission policy in 1943 and for the first time began admitting women on a full-time basis, a change that altered campus life dramatically. It also leased half of the campus buildings to the United States Army for use as a finance school.
A new era in the life at the College began at the end of the war when the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation offered funds to operate the school partially if it moved to Winston-Salem as the medical school had done in 1941. The College trustees and the Baptist State Convention voted to accept the offer, and the old campus was sold to the Convention to establish the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Under the leadership of President H. W. Tribble, the College began the overwhelming task of planning a new 23-acre campus and raising construction funds. President Harry Truman was present for the groundbreaking on October 15, 1951.
There were 312 seniors in the last graduating class in 1956. The student body numbered almost 1300. Women were integrated into almost every aspect of campus life. Social fraternities had a strong foothold on the campus. The basketball team played seven of its games in its future home of Winston-Salem. The baseball team won the NCAA championship. The general mood on the campus was one of excitement about the move tempered by uncertainty about the future.
As the moving vans and heavily laden cars pulled out of Wake Forest in the spring of 1956, many residents felt sadness and even anger. Many houses soon became vacant. Some businesses eventually closed. Church pews were empty. Public school enrollment decreased. Many skeptics asked if the town would survive the “removal.” There remained the rich heritage of the past but could the town even hope for a tolerable future? That answer emerged over the next decade as the town diversified, while 112 miles west the College prospered beyond anyone’s expectations.