Removing Gill name on arena misguided
An open letter to Oregon State president Ed Ray:
Dear Dr. Ray,
I read the column in the recent Oregon Stater alumni magazine in which you were quoted regarding the potential renaming of four buildings on campus, including Gill Coliseum, based on questions raised about the allegedly racist views of the buildings' namesakes.
According to the article, a team of scholars, consisting of both OSU faculty and an external representative, will produce historical analysis reports on the four men for whom the buildings were named.
The article doesn't say who will make the call, but I'm guessing the buck stops with you.
One of the men in question is Slats Gill, for whom Gill Coliseum is named.
Gill played at Oregon State (then Oregon Agricultural College) from 1921-24, served as head basketball coach from 1928-64 and as athletic director from 1964 until his death in 1966. He compiled a record of 599-392 in his 36 seasons, coached a pair of Final Four teams and is a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Through a website (leadership.oregonstate.edu/building-and-place-names), you provide information on each of the four namesakes and a "reason for evaluation."
Benjamin Arnold, the school's second president, "served in the Confederate Army."
Corvallis co-founder Joseph Avery "had ties to the Occidental Messenger newspaper, which advocated for slavery."
Thomas Benton, a former U.S. senator from Missouri for whom Benton County is named, "believed in the supremacy of the white race."
Gill, said the website, "resisted racial integration of the basketball team."
That's fair to say.
Gill coached only one black player during his time at Oregon State, and it was track man Norm Monroe, who played a half-season — and six games — as a reserve during the 1960-61 season. In 2006, I asked Monroe — a distinguished alumni award recipient from the OSU Alumni Association and former member of the OSUAA Board of Directors — about Gill.
"People always ask me, 'Was Slats a prejudiced person?'" Monroe said then. "I never saw it that way. But I remember one time we were playing the University of Portland, and Art Easterley — who later became my best friend — was killing us. At halftime, Slats went into the locker room and slammed the door and said, 'Can't any y'all stop that colored boy?' I was sitting down at the end of the bench, laughing to myself.
"I don't know if Slats was prejudiced. He had his proclivities that were part of that era. He was an Adolph Rupp type of person. His values were different. By today's standards, he would be prejudiced. But in my old age, I've learned not to go there with racism, because it's so subjective. I want to go through all the other reasons why people are the way they are before I turn to racism."
Gill recruited only one black player during his OSU coaching career, and it came during his final season. He ventured to Monterey, California, to visit with Charlie White, a star at Monterey Peninsula JC.
"Slats came to my apartment, we talked, and he told me he had heard good things about me," White says. "He offered me a scholarship. I didn't accept it. I didn't feel it was right at the time. I really didn't really comfortable with him."
After Gill announced his retirement toward the end of that season, his successor, Paul Valenti, renewed efforts to recruit White.
"He came down to visit and we hit it off right away," White says. "I committed, and it was one of the greatest decisions of my life."
Oregon State isn't the only academic institution contemplating such changes.
In May, a panel reporting to U of O President Michael Schill recommended four candidates for renaming the building formerly known as Dunn Hall. The Black Student Task Force asked the university to rename buildings whose namesakes had "racist histories," putting the focus on Dunn and Deady Hall, the latter the oldest building on campus.
Frederick Dunn was a UO professor in the early 1900s and a purported leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. The university decided to rename Dunn Hall and asked a committee to look for someone who was black, deceased and had a direct relationship with Oregon or the U of O. The four finalists are all black.
UO founder Matthew Deady, the namesake for Deady Hall, spoke in favor of slavery before the Civil War but later supported anti-discrimination laws. His reversal led school leaders to choose to keep his name.
In your comments in the Oregon Stater, Dr. Ray, you say this:
"One of the common defenses for people who took positions in the past that are not socially or politically acceptable today is, 'Well, that's just what people believed back then.' Often, you don't have to dig very deep to find that, no, that's not actually true. For example, there was a group called the 'abolitionists' in this country long before the Civil War. Britain outlawed slavery in 1833.
"So the defense in all cases can't be, 'Everyone thought that way.' That simply isn't true. In every case of social and/or political injustice, there were people who had a moral compass, who were ahead of the rest of us, saying, 'This isn't right.'"
True, there were proponents for the abolition of slavery as early as the 1500s in other parts of the world, and prior to the Civil War in the United States. But the majority of white U.S. citizens during that period were either indifferent to change, or in opposition of it.
We live in a much more enlightened era today. During Gill's time, the social mores were much different. Carrie Halsell was Oregon State's first black graduate in 1926, but the school had a small minority enrollment all through the time of Gill's coaching history there. Oregon State's first black football player was Dave Mann, who played from 1951-54. Monroe had difficulty finding housing in Corvallis when he arrived in the late '50s.
A major problem with renaming buildings on campus is, as Monroe suggests, the subjectiveness of it.
Benton "believed in the supremacy of the white race." So did many people of his era, and perhaps others whose names are on edifices on the OSU campus.
Arnold "served in the Confederate Army." Is it possible that he changed his ideas about race in the ensuing years when he was in Corvallis?
Many famous Americans who have their names on states, cities and buildings have a racist past.
At age 11, George Washington inherited 10 slaves and 280 acres of land. Over the next few decades, he purchased more than 100 additional slaves. Our nation's first president eventually freed a portion of them.
Most historians believe Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings' six children. Hemings was an enslaved woman of mixed race owned by Jefferson.
Most U.S. presidents through the time of Ulysses Grant, in fact, were slave owners.
Many famous politicians, Supreme Court justices and members of the legislative system were Ku Klux Klan members, including Robert Byrd and Hugo Black in the 20th century.
Times have changed, and today I'd like to think that black student-athletes at Oregon State are afforded the same opportunities as their white counterparts. If there are racist people in positions of power at OSU, they should be removed.
But to remove the name of Slats Gill from the university arena for his beliefs of an era that ended more than a half-century ago seems arbitrary and misguided.
What is the point? Where does it start? Where does it end? And what good does it do?
"I don't think Slats wanted any black players, but I don't know if that's racist," Charlie White says. "My opinion? It's water under the bridge. I don't know why it has come to all of this. It doesn't make any sense to me."
Isn't it more important to ensure that today's minority student-athletes — and members of the entire student population — are treated with equality?
White has another thought.
"Personally, I don't think they should change the name on Gill (Coliseum)," he says, "but I do think they should name something after Paul Valenti."
Valenti began his playing career at Oregon State in 1939. Except for a three-year military term in World War II, he was an institution as a coach, athletic department employee and valued member of the Corvallis community for more than 75 years until his death in 2014.
"If they don't put Paul's name somewhere," White says, "I'd be disappointed. He gave his life to that university. He was there forever."
That seems a more worthwhile endeavor, Dr. Ray, than erasing the name of a person who lived in a much different — and far less enlightened — society than the one we have today.