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Gray Areas

An image shows the memorial union building at OSU covered in snow.

Oregon State University’s Memorial Union. Photo by Theresa Hogue, Oregon State University, via Flickr and Creative Commons

Oregon State University (OSU) seems far down the list of U.S. colleges and universities that would be launching an investigation into building names associated with Confederates, proslavery ideologues, and alleged segregationists. After all, what place in the continental United States seems more distant from slavery, the Civil War, and Jim Crow than the Pacific Northwest?

Yet, the OSU campus, located in the small town of Corvallis, Oregon, has become a site of intense local debate over the legacy of university building names. Students and faculty have identified several problematic building names and energized a campus movement to evaluate the actions and legacies of the buildings’ historical namesakes. In winter 2017, student protesters marched through campus declaring that “these racist buildings have got to go.” In the spring, students, administrators, and Corvallis community members clashed over the building-naming process in a heated public meeting. The OSU administration ultimately decided to initiate a full investigation into four campus buildings by commissioning scholarly reports on their namesakes and holding a series of community engagement panels set for fall 2017. Meanwhile, opponents of building renaming—including descendants of some of the namesakes—lament that the university might erase or obscure history and exhort administrators to leave history alone.

OSU’s struggle over building names is not as contentious as at Yale University or Clemson University where historical building namesakes such as John C. Calhoun and Benjamin Tillman were notorious for their unapologetic defense of slavery and white supremacy. But OSU’s case comes with its own set of difficulties—peculiar to the Pacific Northwest—that make it difficult for professional historians, students, administrators, and community members to reach any kind of agreement on exactly which building names “have got to go” and why. OSU has no Calhoun or Tillman. Instead, OSU’s namesakes are mostly lesser-known men with much more ambiguous historical records: A town founder who briefly advocated proslavery views but didn’t come from the slave states or fight in the Civil War; an important early college president who served in the Confederacy in his youth but never owned slaves or wrote a word about slavery or race; a U.S. senator who was a major proponent of Manifest Destiny but who ruined his political career when he opposed slavery in the territories; a popular 1960s basketball coach who apparently never made any remarks about race but who nonetheless fielded an all-white team. When it comes to OSU building namesakes, little is black and white. Gray areas abound.

As a member of OSU’s history department, and the leader of the research team that wrote the historical reports on the buildings, interpreting and explaining these gray areas to a public audience has been one of the greatest challenges of the project. All of the scholars on the team struggled with a common dilemma: how to convey the nuances, complexity, and ambiguity that characterizes professional historical scholarship to a public that primarily wants us to weigh in on whether historical figures were “good” or “bad,” deserving or underserving of having buildings named after them. In other words, how do we, as historians, balance our own need for nuanced, rigorous scholarship with the needs of community members who look to us for answers about how to remember the past?

One answer, of course, is that historians can use this kind of process as a teachable moment to educate public audiences about how the discipline of history works. My colleagues and I went to great pains in our reports to emphasize that history was an interpretative discipline rather than a recital of facts. We explained how we worked from incomplete data, how we had to analyze problematic primary sources, and how the quality and quantity of our evidence limited our ability to make ironclad conclusions. The final answers we reached about whether the building namesakes held racist or exclusionary views were generally, “it’s complicated,” “we need to understand the full historical context,” or “we just don’t know for sure.”

As a professional historian, I’m comfortable with these gray areas; ambiguity, uncertainty, the inability to ever truly know much about the past is fundamental to the discipline. At the same time, I’ve become increasingly concerned that inconclusiveness—concluding that we can’t make a strong conclusion—may well impede the struggle for equity and racial justice on my campus. If historians shrug and say it’s impossible to know for sure whether someone was a racist, a supporter of slavery, or a segregationist, will administrators follow our lead, shrug,  and conclude that in the absence of evidence we better just play it safe and let the building names stand? Failure to reach a conclusion may be good scholarship, but is it good for our students—particularly those who face racial microagressions on a daily basis—who live, breathe, work and learn in these buildings? Does inconclusiveness only shield or perpetuate white supremacy?

I’ve struggled to find a way to balance the inherent ambiguity of our building name reports with attentiveness to the ways that inconclusiveness may actually function as a kind of oppression for marginalized and underrepresented students. One possible solution is to reach beyond the figures themselves to illuminate the broader social context of building naming and to understand how white supremacy created the conditions that gave the buildings their names in the first place.

For Oregon, this means a full historical reckoning with white supremacist practices that have kept it one of the least racially diverse places in the United States. We may not be able to conclude that U.S. senator Thomas Hart Benton, the namesake of Benton County and indirect namesake of OSU’s Benton Hall, was an unrepentant racist and advocate of American Indian genocide. We do know, however, that the early white inhabitants of Oregon—people who engaged in their own brutal wars against Native people and overwhelmingly endorsed black laws prohibiting African American settlement—saw Benton as a fitting representative of themselves and their interests. We may not be able to say for sure whether ex-Confederate college president Benjamin Arnold had strong feelings about slavery, or whether Corvallis founder, Joseph Avery, was the secret publisher of a proslavery newspaper. Nonetheless, the white supremacist legacies of Oregon’s early black laws, which discouraged African American migrants for decades, ensured not only that the state remained predominantly white, but also that people like Avery and Arnold would be tolerated and even applauded for their records. County and state histories portrayed them only as heroic pioneers. The relative absence of African Americans in Oregon well into the 1960s—when the state population was only 1% black—allowed university administrators to name buildings after the two men without much reflection on their potential anti-black legacies. The same history of exclusion, harassment, and discrimination against African Americans ensured that OSU’s most successful basketball coach, Amory T. “Slats” Gill, could only successfully recruit whites to his team, regardless of his personal views on the integration of college athletics. Moreover, fielding an all-white team in the 1960s, an era when many universities outside the South were starting to integrate, was not enough to disqualify Gill as university administrators’ first-choice namesake for its new coliseum. In short, even if we can’t reach any solid conclusions about the records of building namesakes, we can uncover how the broader societal context of racial exclusion and white supremacy underpinned decisions about what kind of people deserved to have buildings named after them.

By illuminating the social context of building naming, and how the process of choosing names reflects historical patterns and practices of white supremacy, historians can both recognize the inherent ambiguity and complexity of the past and help dismantle institutionalized racism on college campuses. Historical scholarship is replete with unanswerable questions, but the gray clouds of uncertainty and ambiguity need not overshadow our students’ struggles for justice in the present.

Stacey Smith is Associate Professor of History at Oregon State University and author of Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (University of North Carolina Press, 2013). Her research focuses on race, labor, and civil rights in the nineteenth-century North American West.