By Joseph Orosco (August 19, 2015)
Late last week, based on recommendations from a university-wide committee, President Gregory Fenves of the University of Texas at Austin ordered the removal of a prominent statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis from the Main Mall. He explained that taking the statue away was in the interest of “fostering an inclusive environment” and promoting both “excellence and diversity” at UT.
Several Southern universities have recently confronted their Confederate and white supremacist legacies. Even before the massacre in Charleston, South Carolina this summer that ignited a national debate about flying the Confederate flag, Duke University renamed one of its residence halls that had honored the racist governor Charles B. Aycock. The oldest public university in the country, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also changed the name of Saunders Hall, named after a notorious leader of the state Ku Klux Klan, William Saunders, who was behind numerous kidnappings, lynchings, and murders in the 19th century.
Many think that these questions about the Confederate legacy and the white supremacist ties of universities are entirely Southern problems. But the history of Oregon State University is also deeply rooted in this aspect of the country’s past.
Corvallis College incorporated in 1858 and started to offer college level courses in 1865, under the administration of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The MEC, South broke off from the larger Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844, precisely over the morality of slavery (the MEC, South holding that it was compatible to be a good Christian and own slaves).
OSU also has building named for a Confederate soldier who had a significant impact on the culture of campus. That building is Arnold Dining Center, named after OSU’s third president, Benjamin Lee Arnold.
Benjamin Arnold was born in Virginia in 1839 and majored in philosophy and religion at Randolph Macon College. He taught for a few years before the start of the Civil War. He eventually enlisted in the Confederate Army and served under General Robert E. Lee. In Hidden History of Civil War Oregon (2011), Randol B. Fletcher writes that Arnold may have been involved in Pickett’s Charge, one of the most disastrous battles of the Civil War that led to over six thousand Confederate troops being killed in about an hour. (However, OSU Archives disputes that and says he was discharged just three months after enlisting in 1861).
Arnold was appointed by the bishops of the MEC, South as the president of Corvallis College in 1872. He served until his death in 1892. Under his administration the name of the school changed to Oregon Agricultural College and moved to its present location. Arnold insisted on a scientific and engaged approach to agriculture, having students work in the college farm in addition to classroom study. He also brought intercollegiate athletics to campus by allowing the formation of a student baseball team. Apparently, Arnold’s Confederate experience impacted him significantly; he introduced military science into the curriculum and oversaw the creation of a cadet corp, a forerunner of today’s ROTC, that he would personally drill. In addition to the construction of Benton Hall, Arnold had another long lasting effect on OSU: he introduced orange as the official school color, changing it from the blue and silver it had for a couple of decades.
Local historian Roy Bennett thinks this change was far from innocent (p. 133). Orange was known by many at the time to be a standard for Protestant hooliganism in the United States. In 1870 and 1871, just before Arnold came to Oregon, violent battles, known as the Orange Riots, broke out in New York City between Irish Catholics and Protestant “Orangemen”. The Orange Riots resulted in the deaths of dozens of people and required the intervention of the National Guard to bring about order
Bennett suggests that no one at the time could have misunderstood this anti-Catholic message. Whether or not Arnold was in fact an Orangeman sympathizer is not clear, but color symbolism and its political significance did seem to be important to him. The uniforms of the cadet corp he created were Confederate grey. John Bloss, who also was a Civil War veteran but on the Union side, changed the color of the cadet uniforms to blue when he succeeded Arnold as OSU’s next permanent president in 1892.
Today, Arnold is honored on campus by having the Arnold Dining Center named after him. It’s not obvious that Arnold was an advocate of white supremacy to the extent that Charles Aycock or William Saunders in North Carolina were. But he was loyal to the Confederacy, and its pageantry continued to capture his imagination while he was an administrator of OSU.
I’m not sure this warrants renaming Arnold Dining Center, but the murders in Charleston this past summer have called upon us to look carefully at all the ways the Confederacy and its noxious ideology still shape our institutions. Perhaps a broader conversation needs to happen about this legacy at OSU, in the same way I have suggested it needs to happen in surrounding Corvallis. As UNC Chapel Hill student Nikhil Umesh, who worked on removing Saunders’ name, commented:
“We’re trying to show that spaces of higher education were sites of white supremacy…Challenging racialized geography is an important way to shed light on how institutions are complicit in racism. Higher education is not a utopia, and building names matter because who we honor matters.”