Gary Avery’s “pushback” column (Gazette-Times, Nov. 16) against the Oregon State University historians’ report examining the propriety of a building named after his ancestor, Joseph C. Avery (Avery Lodge) faults the committee for reaching a conclusion that is “a disconnect from the facts” — that J. C. Avery did not own the pro-slavery newspaper, the Occidental Messenger.

Although Avery’s name never appeared on the masthead of the Messenger, the Oregonian, a Whig and soon-to-be Republican newspaper, noted in 1857, “all slave newspapers have their paymasters,” and the financial sponsor of the Messenger was Avery. The Oregonian added that the newspaper was “out and out proslavery, affirming its principles boldly.”

Gary Avery simply ignores the preponderance of evidence about his ancestor’s advocacy of slavery, as copious documents and newspapers of the late 1850s indicate.

Historian Malcolm Clark points out that the slavery controversy divided the Democratic Party, giving birth to new proslavery newspapers, one of them “Avery’s Occidental Messenger in Corvallis.” The Oregon Statesman, a pro-Democratic newspaper referred to Avery in several issues as the Messenger’s benefactor. The first issue of the Messenger, according to the Statesman, witnessed Avery’s influence in shaping editor L.P. Hall’s pro-slavery arguments. The Oregonian, sharply critical of pro-slavery Democrats, referred spitefully to the Messenger’s financial backer as “Julius Caesar Constantine Avery,” an aggressive proponent of slavery.

Several reputable historians have associated J. C. Avery with the militant pro-slavery Occidental Messenger. George Turnbull, pre-eminent historian of early Oregon newspapers, referred to the Messenger as “one of the strongest advocates of slavery, perhaps strongest among newspapers in Oregon.” James Hendrickson, biographer of Joseph Lane, a pro-slavery Democrat from Roseburg, cited the Messenger as the most important pro-slavery newspaper in Oregon. Robert Johannsen, renowned historian of Oregon’s territorial years, contended that Avery’s newspaper was “dedicated to the introduction of slavery into Oregon,” the Messenger arguing that the scarcity and high price of labor in the territory was “a strong argument in favor of slavery.”

Gary Avery also accuses the Corvallis School Board of being “hoodwinked” in January 2004 when it reversed its decision to name the district’s new middle school in honor of J.C. and Martha Avery. The board, as its chair reported, had bypassed a committee and superintendent’s recommendation that the school — the district’s first new building in more than three decades — be named after Oregon-born, two-time Nobel laureate, Linus Pauling. When the board reversed direction in light of new information about J. C. Avery, Gary Avery accused board members of caving to “anecdotal evidence and outright lies presented to them.” As one of three people who testified before the board’s work session on Jan. 26, I cited the work of numerous historians and copious documents linking J.C. Avery to the Occidental Messenger and its aggressive promotion of slavery.

Using an overhead projector, I presented a quote from the first issue of the Messenger proclaiming that it was “in favor of slavery” and would offer its “ardent and unwavering support in favor of its introduction into Oregon.” My testimony concluded with a suggestion that it would be inappropriate to name the school after Avery, because the building was adjacent to Garfield Elementary School, the most diverse in the Corvallis School District.

William G. Robbins is the author most recently of "The People's School," a history of Oregon State University. He retired from OSU as emeritus distinguished professor of history.

 

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