Despite petition, Harding to keep George S. Benson’s name on its chapel venue
Harding University will retain the name of its daily chapel…
After the videoed killing of George Floyd, Jackson House couldn’t stay silent any longer.
The 2014 graduate of Harding University in Searcy, Ark., first learned during his student days of claims of racism against the late George S. Benson, whose name adorns the Christian university’s main auditorium.
But this week, House, a 28-year-old White Christian, took action.
He launched a petition on change.org calling for Harding, which is associated with Churches of Christ, to remove Benson’s name from the building where students gather for daily chapel.
“What really motivated me to do this now is just the overwhelming silence of many White Churches of Christ in response to the killing of George Floyd,” said House, referring to the Black man whose May 25 death in Minneapolis police custody sparked national outrage and protests against racial injustice. Video footage captured a White police officer jamming his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
By late Friday afternoon, 16,000 signatories had endorsed House’s proposal to rename Benson Auditorium in honor of Botham Jean. The 2016 Harding graduate, who was Black, was shot to death in his Dallas apartment by a White police officer on Sept. 6, 2018. Harding President Bruce McLarty knew Jean well and delivered the closing prayer at the beloved Dallas West Church of Christ member’s funeral.
Jean’s sister, Allisa Charles-Findley, told The Christian Chronicle she hopes the petition drive succeeds.
“I think it is fitting that Botham is remembered with such a symbol since Harding University played a part in the outstanding person he was,” said Charles-Findley, president of the Botham Jean Foundation, a charity formed in her brother’s memory. “I deeply hope this petition goes a long way and materializes into the Botham Jean Auditorium.”
On social media, though, the petition has stirred heated debate.
Benson “has been gone almost 30 years,” Bobby Wright, a 1997 Harding graduate, wrote on Facebook. “Young people have no clue who he was. One person can bring up something he said during a small window of his life and have 10,000 people wondering why Harding would honor such scum. Of course this is untrue. He was definitely worthy of the honor bestowed to him.”
Wright lamented that the petition “demonizes” a man credited with raising money that kept Harding alive.
“Without him, Harding would probably not be here today,” Wright said. “This is why his name is on the auditorium.”
Tuesday night, in a Zoom meeting with Harding leaders organized after Floyd’s death, the university’s Black Student Association voiced support for the petition.
Harding posted on Facebook the next afternoon that it’s “working on ways to address the feedback, suggestions and actions,” including considering the request to rename the auditorium.
“We want to do our part to end racism,” Harding’s statement said. “We will strive to better reinforce our position on racism year-round through words and actions. We will continue to listen and learn from conversations and dialogue from our Harding community on social media while we continue to prayerfully work toward change. We believe and affirm that black lives matter, because they do.”
Minority students comprise about 15 percent of Harding’s total enrollment of 4,900.
Namon Pope, secretary and public relations officer of the Black Student Association, said he came across the petition through social media, like most everyone else who has signed it.
“Harding is a good university, but like all of us, it’s made mistakes. Being able to confront those mistakes and own up to them is an important part of the process to move forward and become better,” said Pope, a rising senior whose home congregation is the Hartsville Pike Church of Christ in Gallatin, Tenn., near Nashville.
Concerning the auditorium name, he said, “It’s hard for Black students to attend chapel every morning in an auditorium named after a man who didn’t even want us there.”
Gospel Advocate described Benson this way in a January 1992 obituary: “He was known for his devotion to Christian education, particularly in the development of Harding University, Oklahoma Christian University and George Benson Junior College in Zambia. He also worked to promote Namwianga Christian School in Zambia. He was an elder at the College Church of Christ and president emeritus of Harding. He was a member of the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.”
But House’s petition paints a far less flattering portrait of Benson, characterizing him as “a vocal racist and supporter of segregation.”
“Honoring his legacy by keeping his name on the George S. Benson Auditorium is implicitly honoring his legacy of racism and segregation.”
“In particular, he fought to keep the Harding community segregated,” the petition states. “Honoring his legacy by keeping his name on the George S. Benson Auditorium is implicitly honoring his legacy of racism and segregation.”
Barclay Key is an associate professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and author of the new book “Race and Restoration: Churches of Christ and the Black Freedom Struggle.”
Key referenced Benson in his 2007 doctoral dissertation at the University of Florida, writing that the longtime Harding president “maintained that segregation was providential, a natural order of creation.”
“In lectures to students, he would observe that the ‘redbirds, the bluebirds, the blackbirds, they don’t mix and mingle together, young people!’” Key reported. “In addition, he believed that black people were under the biblical curse of Ham.”
Key also wrote: “Benson’s global humanitarian and evangelistic interests also suggest that he did not harbor racial animosities. Indeed, Benson provides an example of how theology continued to inform the positions of some people whose racism and faith in God had become so entwined that maintenance of a segregated society was equated with seeking God’s will.”
Benson served as president of Harding, about 50 miles northeast of Little Rock, from 1936 to 1965.
Kevin Redd, who is Black and a 2004 Harding graduate, noted that someone proposed renaming the chapel venue as Benson-Jean Auditorium.
“It would be symbolic of progress, embracing change and embracing redemption,” said Redd, one of the preachers for the Millington Church of Christ in Tennessee.
“Apparently, Dr. Benson, at some point, recognized the wrong in his belief and repented, so it’s not really for us to throw stones,” the minister said. “At the same time, we want to be mindful of our Black alumni, the challenges they had (even at Harding) and their contributions to our community.”
The Oklahoma native had ties, too, to Oklahoma Christian University, where he held the chancellor title from 1957 to 1967.
That university, also associated with Churches of Christ, announced this week that it has removed Benson’s name from its administration building after a half-century. Risa Forrester, Oklahoma Christian’s chief communications officer, declined to comment on the Harding petition or say whether it influenced the timing of her university’s decision.
“Removing the Benson name was proactive on the part of leadership as the next right step in the work we’ve been doing over the last several years to make sure our campus reflects our values,” Oklahoma Christian President John deSteiguer said in an email to the university staff. “This is the right thing for OC.”
DeSteiguer noted that Benson Hall “was the site of a dark moment in OC’s history, when 18 students courageously took a stand for equal rights and were subsequently arrested and expelled.”
Fifty years after the arrests, Oklahoma Christian invited those students back to campus last year and apologized. The apology came weeks after Oklahoma Christian renamed its auditorium after some students, faculty members and alumni raised questions about whether the former namesake, N.B. Hardeman, was a racist — a charge denied by his great-grandson.
“In matters of racial diversity, inclusion and equity, OC must do better.”
“In matters of racial diversity, inclusion and equity, OC must do better,” deSteiguer, who attended a Black Lives Matter rally in Oklahoma City this past weekend, said in his email. “Must be better. And we will.”
But Andy Hutchison, a 1993 Oklahoma Christian graduate and father of a nursing student at the university, voiced frustration with his alma mater’s actions.
“Guys, this attempt at rewriting history today to make people feel better about something that happened before they were born is getting old,” Hutchison, a member of the Green Lawn Church of Christ in Lubbock, Texas, said in a friendly Twitter discussion. “We need to educate about the past to not repeat it. But you can NEVER fix history. Recognize it, learn, move on.”
House, who started the Harding petition, earned his Master of Divinity degree from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn., in 2018. He then served two years as a Christian volunteer in Athens, Greece, working with Muslim refugees.
Now back in the U.S., he credits Chuck Monan, minister for the Pinnacle Church of Christ in Little Rock, with helping fuel his passion for racial justice.
“On many occasions, I saw him courageously address racism and issues of justice head-on from the pulpit with no regard whatsoever for the pushback he would receive behind the scenes,” House said. “His example has given me courage to speak out and face the criticism that inevitably comes from some brethren.”
As a Harding undergraduate, House wrote his senior seminar paper on the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, a Black teen murdered after allegedly flirting with a White woman. Later, while attending theology school and worshiping with the Holmes Road Church of Christ in Memphis, he further developed his interest in civil rights and justice.
House said he loves Harding and has no desire to create a public relations problem for it.
“I just want to shine a light.”
But after what happened to Floyd, House decided he had to speak up.
“George Benson is one of the most centrally honored figures at Harding today because of the Benson Auditorium,” House said. “The heartbeat of campus, in a lot of ways, is chapel. And that takes place every day in Benson Auditorium.
“And he was a man who promoted segregation and institutionalized racism at Harding,” the petition organizer added. “So I just want to shine a light on that.”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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