Oregon State University’s second president and the namesake of a dining center grew up in a slaveholding family and was in the Confederate Army, according to a new report from the university.
The report on the history of Benjamin Lee Arnold, prepared by a team of five historians, was released Friday afternoon by OSU. It's part of a process that could result in the name of Arnold Dining Center being changed this fall.
The university is considering changing the names of three other buildings, and will hold a series of meetings over the next two weeks to gather public feedback on the potential name changes.
The first meeting in the series is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Memorial Union Ballroom. The focus of that meeting will be the Arnold Dining Center.
The report examined census records and found that Arnold’s father and the uncle who educated him in his native Virginia both owned slaves.
“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. Although he may not have held slaves himself due to his age, he directly experienced and benefited from the institution of slavery,” the report stated.
The report also found while in college Arnold studied domestic slavery, in a course which had a curriculum centered on the premise that slavery was both biblically and morally correct. Arnold did well enough in the course to earn a credential in the subject.
The authors of the report found evidence Arnold had enlisted in the Confederate Army in November 1862, a year and a half into the Civil War.
“The details of Benjamin Arnold’s service remain somewhat unclear due to the incomplete nature of Confederate military records and subsequent histories,” the report said. Arnold apparently served first in an artillery battalion and later in an infantry company until the Confederate surrender.
The report states Arnold may have sat out some period of the war while ill, but says some of the exact details are hard to pin down.
“Without more detailed documentation it is difficult to determine the specific service Arnold performed or which battles he directly participated in, since he seems never to have written or spoken publicly about his wartime experiences, motivations, or ideals,” the report states.
The report said Arnold served as the president of the institution that would later become OSU from 1872 until his death in 1892 and that period of his life is the best documented. During his time as president, what was then known as Corvallis College became a public institution and significantly increased in size.
In its conclusion, the report says: “Benjamin Arnold was a significant figure in the early history of the university, and could even be considered the father of the institution in its public form. His upbringing and education in Virginia, including his family’s slaveholding, his service in the Confederate army during the Civil War, his postwar religious affiliations, and his educational career in the South suggest that Arnold may have held some version of the 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 were, or how they evolved over the course of his life. Arnold was admired and respected during his two decades as president of the Corvallis College/Oregon Agricultural College, but he was largely forgotten when Arnold Dining Hall was built and named to honor him in 1971-1972."
The report also discusses Arnold’s creation of a military science curriculum and cadet corps at the college, and his selection of a gray uniform.
“His enthusiasm for this work, and the selection of cadet gray for the color of the uniforms, has led to speculation that Arnold continued to hold Confederate sympathies, but there is no evidence of this. ... The imposition of a uniform standard was in keeping with the practices of other college cadet corps, and gray was a popular choice both before and after the Civil War (it remains the regulation uniform color at West Point). There is, however, some indication that the continued use of gray uniforms during his tenure as president was not necessarily Arnold’s choice. In November 1888, Arnold conveyed to the Board of Regents the unspecified 'dissatisfaction' of an unknown party with the uniforms the students were required to purchase and wear. The issue was apparently out of Arnold’s hands, as the board responded that they specifically 'wish the gray color to be maintained,' which seems to have closed the matter,” the report said.
Also included in the name evaluation process are Avery Lodge, named for Joseph Avery, a Corvallis founder who the university said owned a pro-slavery newspaper; Benton Hall, which according to the university is named for the people of Benton County, which itself was named for white supremacist U.S. Sen. Thomas Hart Benton; and Gill Coliseum, named for longtime basketball coach Amory “Slats” Gill, who student protesters have claimed refused to integrate his team. (A university historian has said there is no evidence Gill refused to integrate, but he only had one black player, a walk-on for part of a season.)
The university is planning discussions on those names in the Memorial Union Ballroom next week:
• The Avery Lodge discussion is set for 5:30 p.m. Oct. 16.
• The Benton Hall discussion is set for 5:30 p.m. Oct. 17.
• The Gill Coliseum discussion is set for 5:30 p.m. Oct. 19.
A university historian said OSU is planning to release similar historical reports for each of the figures involved four days before the public meetings on the related building name.
The full report on Arnold is posted on http://leadership.oregonstate.edu/building-and-place-names. The university says future reports will be posted there as well.