Marcus Trinidad didn’t major in history, but he managed to make some during his four years at Oregon State University.
As a freshman, Trinidad ignited a fiery debate on campus and in the community with a 2016 article in The Daily Barometer, OSU’s student newspaper, that raised questions about the propriety of having buildings named after people who may have promoted or embraced racist ideologies.
After two years of student protests, committee reports and community meetings, President Ed Ray announced new names for buildings named after Corvallis founder Joseph Avery, who owned and edited a pro-slavery newspaper during the Civil War, and Thomas Hart Benton, an influential 19th century U.S. senator and Benton County’s namesake, who advocated racist policies such as taking land from Native Americans to give to white settlers. (Technically, OSU’s Benton Hall was named for the people of Benton County, but the building was renamed anyway.)
The genesis of the story was a passing conversation in a peace studies class, but once he began looking into the background of some of OSU’s building namesakes, Trinidad — whose ethnic heritage is Filipino — started thinking more deeply about issues of historical injustice and institutional racism.
“Normally, when you come to a place, you don’t really ask why is this building named after this person,” Trinidad said.
“But people like this never envisioned somebody like me stepping into a building named after them, and that started weighing on me a little bit.”
Some people attacked Trinidad’s reporting based on his own racial background, but in the end the university renamed most of the buildings he raised questions about. Gill Coliseum was allowed to keep its name after a committee determined the record was inconclusive about whether longtime OSU basketball coach Amory “Slats” Gill, who had just one black player during his 36-year tenure, was racially motivated.
“People say you’re erasing history, but if you get your education strictly through building names and statues, then you probably ought to get a better education,” Trinidad said.
Trinidad acknowledges he was stung by the criticism but says he also learned valuable lessons about “meeting people where they’re at” and not trying to change them.
“I’ve grown more comfortable with people challenging me,” he said. “I always say the only advantage of having brown skin is you don’t get sunburned, and I’ve grown a pretty thick skin.”
As a sophomore, Trinidad stepped away from his position as a news editor for The Barometer, but he remained involved with the renaming process as a student representative to the OSU building and place names evaluation work group. Also that year, he led 20 social justice workshops on campus and organized a well-attended panel discussion on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the controversial federal program that allows some people who were brought to the United States illegally as children to remain in the country for a period of time.
As a junior, Trinidad returned to the news business as a digital producer for The Barometer’s website. He spent his senior year as the paper’s editor in chief, leading The Baro to a regional award for general excellence in a college newspaper contest sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists.
Now that he’s about to graduate from OSU, Trinidad doubts he’ll pursue journalism as a career. He may eventually go to graduate school to study public policy, but right now he’s not thinking that far ahead.
In his immediate future is a stint with the AmeriCorps program in North Charleston, South Carolina, where he’ll come face to face with plenty of statues to Confederate heroes. He says he’s not worried about that.
“Who we choose to honor and continue to honor says a lot about who we are,” he said. “A lot of those statues are rooted in intimidation. If that’s who people want to be, they have to reckon with that.”
Trinidad said he’s not sure America will ever fully be able to reconcile its racist past with a multicultural future.
“People can’t even agree if the Civil War was based on slavery or not,” he points out.
But looking back on the controversy generated by his 2016 article on campus building names at OSU, he says he has no regrets — and may even have found reason for hope.
“I was mostly proud that this community was willing to have that kind of discussion,” he said. “I think that’s more valuable than just changing a name, whether I agreed with the outcome or not.”