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Harry Truman Visit

When a 122-year-old Baptist college picks up and moves down the road 110 miles, what’s the best way to get the news on the front page? Why, boldly ask the nation’s most famous Baptist to turn the first shovel of dirt.

That’s exactly what Harold Tribble, president of Wake Forest College, did in 1951 after rejecting the groundbreaking committee’s original idea of a Wake Forest-UNC football game. No, for the auspicious occasion of the beginning of the new Winston-Salem campus, Tribble wanted more than the sports page. He wanted the front page of every newspaper in North Carolina — and of every newspaper in the country.

He got it. President Harry S. Truman accepted Tribble’s invitation to turn that special spade and give a speech in Winston-Salem. Shortly before the Oct. 15, 1951 groundbreaking, Tribble told students and faculty during chapel services: “It is significant that the President of the United States will participate in a program such as this. What he says on that day will be quoted around the world as his Wake Forest speech.”

The next day, every major newspaper in the country did indeed report the front-page news of Truman’s 20-minute speech that ranged from praise of Wake Forest and academic freedom to foreign policy in post-World War II America.

“It is a privilege to join my fellow Baptists in rejoicing at the enlargement and rebuilding of one of our great institutions. It is a privilege to join the people of North Carolina in celebrating their devotion to freedom of the mind and spirit,” Truman told the crowd of 25,000 people standing in the midst of 300 acres of dirt, grass and trees from which the new campus would soon emerge. Bulldozers had cleared a half-mile road into the campus, and a podium had been erected on the site of the future Wait Chapel.

Truman praised Wake Forest’s tradition of service to education and religion in North Carolina. “A college is an institution that is dedicated to the future. It is based on faith and hope – faith in the basic decency of our fellow men, and hope that the increase of knowledge will promote the general welfare.

“This faith and this hope are a very important part of the American way of life, so important that if they are lost, that way of life will be destroyed,” Truman continued. “Faith that the average American is honest and trustworthy; hope that when he knows the truth, that the truth will make him free. This faith and this hope are the strong foundations on which Wake Forest College was built. They are the foundations on which the Republic has stood, unshaken by all the storms that have beaten upon it.”

Truman drew a parallel between the fears of the 29 North Carolina State Senators who voted against the 1833 bill granting a charter to Wake Forest and the fear of Communism rampant at the time of the Korean War. “To the sowers of suspicion, and the peddlers of fear, to all these who seem bent on persuading us that our country is on the wrong track and that there is no honor or loyalty left in the land, and that woe and ruin lie ahead, I would say one thing: ‘Take off your blinders, and look to the future. The worst danger we face is the danger of being paralyzed by doubts and fears. This danger is brought on by those who abandon faith and sneer at hope. It is brought on by those who spread cynicism and distrust and try to blind us to our great chance to do good for all mankind.

“Yet, at heart, I do not greatly fear such men, for they have always been with us, and in the long run they have always failed. To be sure, they alarm us at times. In 1833 they came within one vote of preventing Wake Forest from being born. But they didn’t succeed, and that’s the whole point. They have never succeeded permanently in holding back the United States—and they never will succeed in holding it back.”

Truman closed with “an injunction to remember the words the Lord said to Moses on the shores of the Red Sea: ‘Why criest thou unto me? Speak to the children of Israel, that they go forward.’ For when the accounts of history are rendered, it is the going forward that will constitute the record—not the hesitation and the mistakes—not how you refrained from wrong, but how you did right.

“Armed with the faith and hope that made this college and this country great, you may declare in the words of King David, ‘Through God we shall do valiantly.'”


Hinman, Bill. “Ground-breaking at Wake Forest.” Wake Forest Magazine, 1975.

Shaw, Bynum. The History of Wake Forest College, Vol. IV 1943-1967.

Truman, Harry S. “Address in Winston-Salem at Groundbreaking Ceremonies, Wake Forest College.” 15 Oct. 1951. Truman Library, Public Papers of the Presidents, Viewed 25 Feb. 2009.

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