Wheeling Gaunt receives honorary degree from Wilberforce University
- Published: May 16, 2023
Yellow Springs philanthropist and businessman Wheeling Gaunt was awarded an honorary degree posthumously by Wilberforce University at the college’s commencement on Saturday, May 6.
According to the university’s retiring President Elfred A. Pinkard, the idea of giving the awards posthumously sprang forth about four years ago for two reasons.
“Number one, to honor these incredible African Americans, oftentimes overlooked, or not as well-known as they should be given their work and their impact on the world. And then I felt that in doing that, it was always an opportunity to educate our students and to educate the public about these incredible individuals,” Pinkard said in a recent interview with the News.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first Black woman doctor awarded a medical degree in the United States in 1864, will also be given an honorary degree from the university.
The college continued the tradition of the academy by honoring two living people with honorary degrees: journalist Dorothy Butler Gilliam, the first African American woman hired by the Washington Post; and United Negro College Fund Executive Vice President and CFO Maurice Jenkins, who has raised billions for historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, all over the United States.
Many people in Yellow Springs are at least familiar with the name of Wheeling Gaunt — after all, the local park is named after Gaunt, and there is a sculpture in his honor at the town’s entrance on the north side.
A formerly enslaved Black man from Kentucky, Gaunt was born around 1812. After moving to Yellow Springs in the mid-1800s with his wife, Amanda, and a male thought to be his son, Gaunt purchased his freedom and became a philanthropist and one of the wealthiest Black men in Ohio during his lifetime.
Many locals also know that, every holiday season, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Village distributes flour and sugar to widows and widowers of the community. It is a 123-year-old tradition that has continued since Gaunt died in 1894, leaving the land on which the park named for him now resides to the Village, with the stipulation that local widows, regardless of race, would receive flour.
What people may not know is that, when Gaunt died, he left a large amount of property that he owned in Yellow Springs to Wilberforce University, a local college and the first privately owned HBCU in the country. Gaunt was also active in the African Methodist Episcopal, or AME, church in Yellow Springs, the third oldest AME district established in the nation by the church, based in Philadelphia. This was, perhaps, an entryway for his support of Wilberforce University, which was co-founded by AME Bishop and educator Daniel Payne prior to the Civil War in 1856.
“And yet he transcended [enslavement] in what he left for the [village] of Yellow Springs,” Pinkard said. “But he was also interested in the advancement of his people as evidenced by his support of Wilberforce University, which during his lifetime was an institution that was evolving.”
Pinkard continued: “When he got here in 1864, Wilberforce was only eight years old. I want people to recognize that Wheeling Gaunt is not just an African American hero. He is an American hero.”
Pinkard was introduced to Gaunt’s legacy by this reporter, who at the time was an instructor at the university. A walking tour featuring the property owned by Gaunt — included in a Blacks in Yellow Springs tour offered by The 365 Project — inspired Pinkard to honor Gaunt posthumously with a degree.
“I was just so blown away by this African American man who was born enslaved, who bought his freedom, who at one point was one of the wealthiest, if not the wealthiest, African American in the state of Ohio, perhaps the United States at that point, but who also bequeathed land to Wilberforce University. … I mean, that just is such a beautiful story of someone’s humanity,” Pinkard said.
While Pinkard is unsure whether posthumous honorary degrees will continue to be awarded by Wilberforce as a practice by the incoming president, Vann Newkirk, he expressed hope that it will continue as a tradition.
“Black folks have been everywhere doing incredible things for as long as we have been in this world, and certainly for as long as we’ve been in America. And yet those stories oftentimes are little known,” Pinkard said.
He also hopes that Gaunt will find a way into Wilberforce — through its entrepreneurial-focused curriculum.
“The [graduating] seniors will have evidence of his work, but perhaps next year we can make some connections, in terms of Wheeling Gaunt — the posthumous, honorary degree that we’ve given him, the entrepreneurial spirit at Wilberforce, and making some much stronger connections, seeing that being played out in the classroom and other sorts of extracurricular activities at the university,” Pinkard said.
*Durgans was the instructor who introduced Wheeling Gaunt to Pinkard. Durgans is a former instructor at Wilberforce University under the Pinkard administration from 2018–2021.
One Response to “Wheeling Gaunt receives honorary degree from Wilberforce University”
It’s very good that they’ve done this. Someone like Gaunt who had experienced suffering and lean years to be able to still give back to his community is a lesson history deserves to know. We all benefit from his recognition. Thank you. May the wheels of his legacy and spirit continue to inspire.