Oregon State University is changing the names of three buildings on campus because of concerns that their namesakes held racist views, the school’s president said Monday.
One of the buildings is Benton Hall. It was named after Benton County, where the college is located. But over the years it became associated with the county’s namesake, U.S. Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, which college administrators have decided is a problematic connection, reported the Corvallis Gazette-Times.
“The names of all buildings and places play a very important role in our university,” OSU president Ed Ray wrote in a letter to the OSU community released on Monday. “They speak to the 149-year history of OSU, the university’s values and mission, and our efforts to create an inclusive community for all.
“Over the past two years, hundreds of students and OSU employees, community stakeholders and alumni have participated in numerous meetings about these buildings. Hundreds more contributed their thoughts by e-mail, in phone calls, letters, and on a website comment form created for this building name review.”
In August, a group of scholars began researching the lives and viewpoints of the namesakes of five buildings on campus, including Benton Hall and Benton Annex. Their report was released in October.
Of all the historical figures researched, Benton had the most clearly documented record on race issues, researchers determined.
“Thomas Hart Benton was one of the nation’s most dynamic and visible politicians in pre-Civil War America. Elected to five terms in the Senate and one term in the House of Representatives, he became famed as an orator and a combative advocate of causes. He was a product of his times. He was a Southerner by birth and a slave-owner by inheritance,” wrote Stephen Dow Beckham, historian and professor emeritus of history at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore.
“Although he opposed the extension of slavery into the territories, he was no abolitionist and couched his opposition to slavery in terms of protecting the federal union, not the civil liberties of those held in bondage. His legacy on slavery is controversial and discomforting.”
In his announcement Monday, Ray said Benton Hall should be renamed to make it clear it was named to honor Benton County, whose residents raised the money for the building, and not the Missouri senator.
“The current name of the building does not make this distinction clear,” Ray wrote in his announcement of the changes. “It is my judgment that the name of Benton Hall should be changed to a name that honors the contributions of community and county residents who believed in and invested in higher education early on.”
(This Thomas Hart Benton is not to be confused with the celebrated painter of the same name whose home and studio in Kansas City are a historic site, though the two men were shirt-tail relations. The politician was the painter’s great-great uncle, according to Mental Floss.)
Benton, born in North Carolina in 1782, was a lawyer and a major voice in several national debates, according to The State Historical Society of Missouri.
He was known as a bit of a hothead. A feud with Andrew Jackson ended in a street brawl in Nashville, according to the historical society. Benton shot Jackson in the arm, and the future president is said to have carried that bullet in his body for the rest of his life.
His reputation damaged in Tennessee, Benton moved to St. Louis, where he became a community leader and founded a newspaper that he used to launch his political career. He wrote editorials promoting westward expansion and Missouri statehood. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1820, where he served for 30 years.
Benton advocated for Missouri to be admitted as a slave state, but his attitude evolved.
While he didn’t think slavery was wrong, he didn’t think it should spread into new western territories, the Missouri historical society says, and he spent his last session in Congress speaking against slavery, which cost him support back home.
Benton became tied to Oregon in 1846 when he spent three days in the Senate talking about “The Oregon Question,” or expanding the country into Oregon territory, according to the historical society. He believed in westward expansion beyond the Rocky Mountains and supported efforts to claim the Oregon Territory for the United States.
Beckham’s report points out that many of the white people who migrated to Oregon moved there from Missouri.
Benton Hall was one of five buildings the university’s president had considered renaming, according to Inside Higher Ed. The school’s Avery Lodge was named for Joseph C. Avery, the founder of Corvallis, Ore., where the university is located. He has been linked to a magazine that wrote favorably about slavery.
“The preponderance of evidence gathered by the scholars’ report and this naming review process — and shared by other historians in the past — indicates that Joseph C. Avery’s views and political engagement in the 1850s to advance slavery in Oregon are inconsistent with Oregon State’s values,” Ray wrote in a message to the OSU community announcing the change.
Public reaction to renaming the buildings has been mixed, with some supporting the changes and others accusing the school of trying to erase history, the Gazette-Times reports.
“I’m outraged as to why the president of the university has the right to change the names of the buildings on campus,” Cindy Filonczuk, who identified herself as an OSU graduate, told the newspaper.
“When I walked into Benton Hall years ago I never was bothered by the name nor ever looked into the name and thought it racist! Are we going to change it again in 100 years because of something or someone else decides the name is wrong for whatever reason?”
Ray acknowledged that not everyone will agree with the outcome, but “I believe this process is proof that at OSU, we productively and positively take on tough issues and collaborate,” he said in his statement. “The process of reconciling the histories of these buildings has embodied the spirit and purpose of this university.”
A committee will begin the search for new names for Benton Hall, Benton Annex and Avery Lodge during the upcoming winter term.