Oregon State University's report on the life and times of Benjamin Lee Arnold — the namesake for OSU's Arnold Dining Hall — provides an excellent starting point for the university's discussion of its history and whether it should rename some of its buildings.
The report also serves as a splendid example of how disciplined professional historians can shed new light on issues that we're grappling with even today. It also serves as a reminder that even the best historians can't answer every question.
Arnold served as president of what was then Corvallis College, the institution that eventually became Oregon State University, from 1872 until his death in 1892. He was, in the words of the report, "a significant figure in the early history of the university, and could even be considered the father of the institution in its public form." In that context, it made sense to honor him by placing his name on the Arnold Dining Hall when it was built in the early 1970s.
But big questions are swirling around Arnold and three other OSU buildings that have been named to honor other important figures in the university's history: Did these people hold racist or exclusionary views? If that's the case, should the buildings be renamed?
The other buildings involved in OSU's review are Gill Coliseum, Avery Lodge and Benton Hall. (Benton Hall is not named for U.S. Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, a white supremacist, but rather for the people of Benton County. Of course, Benton County is named for Benton, so that complicates matters.)
And, as the OSU report on Arnold clearly demonstrates, these matters are complicated.
Arnold was raised in a slaveholding family in Mecklenburg County, Virginia. He studied slavery (and other subjects) in college and served in the Confederate army during the Civil War. "Arnold grew up in a world pervaded by the daily reality of slavery, and by open debate, discussion and dissent regarding the past, present and future of slavery as an institution," says the report, by OSU's Thomas Bahde.
That slavery class Arnold took at Virginia's Randolph Macon College, which he attended between 1857-1861, was taught by the college president, William A. Smith, who was "firmly within the paternalist camp of proslavery thought," the report says. And it adds: "We do not know that Arnold shared all, or any, of his professor's opinions, but they must have shaped his thinking on issues of slavery and race."
Bahde concludes Arnold's background suggests that "Arnold may have held some version of broadly white supremacist views common to whites of his era, but because he did not speak or write publicly about his views on either slavery or race, it is impossible to say with certainty precisely what they where, or how they evolved over the course of his life."
Which brings up something else worth keeping in mind about history: Despite the report's heavy reliance on primary sources, including firsthand accounts of historical events, newspaper articles, oral histories, census histories, diaries, letters and official institutional or government documents, big gaps remain. The most well-documented portion of Arnold's life was his tenure at Corvallis College, and even there, holes exist. In fact, by the time Arnold Dining Center was dedicated, he largely had been forgotten.
An introduction to the report notes that "people who lived in the past were complex. In some cases, it may not be easy to make cut-and-dry conclusions about whether these building namesakes held or acted on exclusionary views."
So making these decisions about the four buildings will not be easy. This report, and (we hope) the reports to follow on the other buildings, don't necessarily make this any easier. But they do us a real service by setting the stage in a thoughtful, evenhanded manner. Let's hope the discussions that follow live up to that standard. (mm)