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Harding University chapel | File photo

Despite petition, Harding to keep George S. Benson’s name on its chapel venue

The Christian university’s president pledges to honor slain alumnus Botham Jean ‘in his own unique way on our campus.’

Harding University will retain the name of its daily chapel venue — Benson Auditorium — despite an online petition signed by more than 18,000 that characterized the late George S. Benson as “a vocal racist and supporter of segregation.”

Bruce McLarty, president of the 4,900-student Christian university in Searcy, Ark., revealed his decision in a lengthy online statement titled “On the matter of the Benson Auditorium.”

Bruce McLarty

Bruce McLarty

“Rather than remove his name, the University needs to tell the more complete story of Dr. Benson — both the high points and the low points, the inspiring and the painful,” McLarty said in response to the petition.

Benson served as president of Harding, which is associated with Churches of Christ, from 1936 to 1965. 

“His letters and his speaker’s notes testify to the complex life and thoughts of a man who had human flaws, but who kept growing and changing his entire life,” McLarty said. “Dr. Benson indeed gave speeches in chapel opposing integration of Harding College in the late 1950s. That he said these things is true, and Harding University regretfully acknowledges that. Yet, before the end of his tenure, this man who defended racial segregation presided over the integration of Harding College in 1963.”

Jackson House, a 2014 Harding graduate, organized the petition drive amid national racial unrest after the May 25 police killing of George Floyd.

House, who recently served two years as a Christian volunteer working with Muslim refugees in Greece, voiced disappointment with McLarty’s decision.

“The University’s statement minimizes the concerns of students and alumni by referring to this effort as ‘(wrestling) with the difficult issues of our time’ and saying ‘the primary distinction’ in determining someone’s position on the issue is whether or not they ‘first knew George Benson as a living person or they first encountered him as the object of a petition and the subject of a newspaper article,’” House said.

George S. Benson’s “letters and his speaker’s notes testify to the complex life and thoughts of a man who had human flaws, but who kept growing and changing his entire life.”

“It is irrelevant whether someone knew Dr. Benson,” said the 28-year-old alumnus, who earned his Master of Divinity degree from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn., in 2018. “We have to deal forthrightly with what he believed and taught about race.”

In a Facebook post, leaders of Harding’s Black Student Association said: “Symbols hold great meaning, and while the goal of educating the student body and others of Harding’s history with race is a noble one, it cannot be done as long as we continue to worship daily in a building that bears (Benson’s) name.”

Walter Buce, a 1981 Harding alumnus who was critical of the petition effort, praised McLarty’s decision.

“Dr. Benson deserves prominent recognition on the Harding campus,” said Buce, a member of the Saturn Road Church of Christ in Garland, Texas. “Dr. McLarty’s decision hit the proper balance by totally documenting the full picture of Dr. Benson’s life — warts and all.

Related: After George Floyd’s death, petition to rename Harding auditorium gains support

“His contributions to Harding, to free enterprise and freedoms education, his humanitarian efforts around the world, his assistance to competing Christian colleges and his evangelistic efforts in Africa are legendary,” Buce added. “When I was at Harding, long after he stepped down as president, George S. Benson was known for two things: his lousy driving and his laser-like enthusiasm for education and evangelism in Zambia.”

Botham Jean leads singing during his student days at Harding University.

Botham Jean leads singing in Benson Auditorium during his student days at Harding University.

Differing perspectives on Benson

The petition cited a 2012 Arkansas Times article, which said the forthcoming Civil Rights Act, passed in 1964, “changed the financial calculus of segregation. When the bill passed, Harding would be required to desegregate to continue receiving federal funds.”

“The first Black students were admitted for the fall semester of 1963, but they were not allowed to live on campus,” Barclay Key, author of the new book “Race and Restoration: Churches of Christ and the Black Freedom Struggle,” told The Christian Chronicle. “In a 1966 sermon that I found, Benson still maintained, ‘There is no reason to think the Lord wants a mixing of the races and the creating of just one mongrel race.’”

“The last person he saw on this earth was a Black man as he parted this life to see the face of God. From seeing a Black man to seeing Christ Jesus is a testament to the redemptive story of his life.”

But Rayton Sianjina, a native of Zambia, paints a different picture of Benson, who was active in African mission work. 

Sianjina said he was 10 years old when he first met Benson in his home country in 1972. Later, after Sianjina came to study at Harding in 1980, Benson served as a mentor to him, said Sianjina, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the university.

Sianjina said he spent a great deal of time with Benson in his later years and visited him in the hospital before the former Harding president died in 1991 at age 93.

“He took his last breath as I was holding his hand,” said Sianjina, now a higher education administrator in Georgia. “The last person he saw on this earth was a Black man as he parted this life to see the face of God. From seeing a Black man to seeing Christ Jesus is a testament to the redemptive story of his life.”

By the end of the 1960s, Harding had only 20 Black students out of a total enrollment of almost 2,000, Barclay reported in his 2007 doctoral dissertation at the University of Florida. 

Today, minority students comprise about 15 percent of Harding’s student body, according to the university.

Benson also served as chancellor of Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City from 1957 to 1967. Oklahoma Christian, which also is associated with Churches of Christ, recently removed Benson’s name from its administration building after a half-century.

“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 in June. “This is the right thing for OC.”

President Bruce McLarty discovers that the water in Harding University's fountain is colder than it looks. McLarty took a dip in 2016 to support Special Olympics Arkansas.

President Bruce McLarty discovers that the water in Harding University’s fountain is colder than it looks. McLarty took a dip in 2016 to support Special Olympics Arkansas.

Harding ‘recognized a major oversight’

As a result of the recent discussions, McLarty said, Harding “recognized a major oversight”: the lack of any buildings or landmarks on campus to recognize the contributions of its African American alumni. 

“That must change,” he said, announcing the creation of a task force to identify “the most meaningful and appropriate things that Harding can do to memorialize and celebrate the history and the presence of African-Americans at Harding.”

Related: Racial concerns prompt renaming of Christian university’s auditorium

The petition had recommended that Harding change its auditorium name to honor Botham Jean, a 2016 Harding graduate. Jean, who was Black, was shot to death in his Dallas apartment by a White police officer on Sept. 6, 2018. McLarty knew Jean well and delivered the closing prayer at the beloved Dallas West Church of Christ member’s funeral.

“Botham will be honored in his own unique way on our campus,” McLarty said. “This could be with a bronze statue of Botham leading singing or it could be the naming of an academic program in his honor. That remains to be determined, but the name of Botham Jean will be prominently and permanently placed on the Harding campus during the coming school year.”

Students, faculty and staff at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., gather on the Benson Auditorium steps to grieve and remember alumnus Botham Shem Jean.

In September 2018, Harding students, faculty and staff gather on the Benson Auditorium steps to grieve and remember alumnus Botham Shem Jean.

Jean’s sister, Allisa Charles-Findley, had supported the petition drive.

“In my opinion, what better way is there to stand up against racism than by taking down the name of someone who stood for segregation and replacing it with a student who was loved by everyone and who was killed because of the color of his skin?” Charles-Findley said in response to McLarty’s announcement. 

“I hope Harding does honor Botham in an impactful way that will last a lifetime, just like they did with the Benson Auditorium,” added Charles-Findley, president of the Botham Jean Foundation, a charity formed in her brother’s memory.

Hope for the future

Kevin Redd, a 2004 Harding alumnus, said McLarty’s statement left him hopeful about the future.

“I would hope that everyone can resolve to keep an open mind as this is very early in the process of neutralizing decades of discimination and bias,” said Redd, who is Black and preaches for the Millington Church of Christ in Tennessee. “We didn’t get here overnight, and changing it won’t happen overnight. It’s got to be done correctly so that we move forward at the right pace with the right goals, and ultimately, God is glorified in what we do.”

Related: 50 Years: Racial Reconciliation and the Church

McLarty concluded his statement by saying that he wants Harding “to be a place where racism is always identified as evil and where people of all races are confident that they are valued and esteemed as children of God.

“I believe we have made great progress in this direction, but I acknowledge that we still have far to travel to reach these goals,” the university president said. “We commit ourselves today to following in the steps of Jesus who ‘has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility’ and who now shows us the way ‘to bear with one another in love.’”

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].

Filed under: Christian universities George S. Benson Harding University National Oklahoma Christian University Partners race and church Racial reconciliation and the church Top Stories

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