At the end of the Civil War, Confederate officer Benjamin Hawthorne surrendered his troops at Virginia’s Appomattox Courthouse and walked 100 miles to his home. In 1873, eight years after the war, he moved to Oregon. In 1959, the University of Oregon named a residence hall after him.

Hawthorne, an early professor at the University of Oregon and the founder of the psychology department, is not a widely known figure across campus today.

But Hawthorne, the namesake for Hawthorne Hall in the Walton Complex, came from a slave-owning family. Hawthorne’s father, John Hawthorne, owned 21 slaves according to the 1860 Federal Census’ Slave Register.

While it’s unclear whether Hawthorne himself owned any slaves, his story raises the question of how far universities should go in re-examining and evaluating their histories.

This is happening all over the country — not just in the South or at UO.

Last year, UO renamed Dunn Hall, a building dedicated to a former leader of the Eugene Ku Klux Klan. Colleges like Yale, Georgetown University and Clemson University are evaluating buildings named after figures associated with slavery, the KKK and the Confederate army.

Oregon State University is evaluating the names of four buildings, including one named after Benjamin Arnold, a close friend of Benjamin Hawthorne’s.

OSU cited Arnold’s involvement in the Confederate Army as the primary reason why they are considering removing his name.

UO officials said they weren’t even aware of Hawthorne’s service to the South during the Civil War. Even those who know of Hawthorne’s personal history say they aren’t sure if his hall should be renamed.

Benjamin Hawthorne, founder of UO’s psychology department, served as a captain in the Confederate States Army during the Civil War.

“If you had a Robert E. Lee Hall, I would say you would have to change its name,” said Randol B. Fletcher, the author of “Hidden History of Civil War Oregon” and a member of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. “Whereas a guy like Hawthorne [or] Arnold – they were 23 years old. They did what everyone at their age did, so I don’t know if we should hold that against them.”

From the South to the West

Fletcher, an Oregon native who now lives in Virginia, has done extensive research on Oregon’s connection to the Civil War. He checked the 1860 slave register, a part of the United State Census at the time, to reconfirm information from his book.

“[Hawthorne’s] father, a guy named John Hawthorne, owned 21 slaves. In those days, that would have made him a multimillionaire,” Fletcher said.  

According to the UO Libraries Special Collections and Archives, Benjamin Hawthorne was born in 1837 in Lunenburg County, Virginia. He enlisted in the 38th Virginia Regiment as a private when the Civil War broke out in 1861. Soon, he was promoted to an officer because of his family’s elite status.

According to Fletcher, it was “pretty universal” for men like Hawthorne to join the army.

Many historians acknowledge that the war wasn’t just fought for slavery, but for economic reasons as well — this makes it hard to discern a soldier’s reason for enlisting.

As the war progressed, Hawthorne made his way up through the Confederate army and eventually became a member of Brigadier-General Lewis Armistead’s staff.

When the war was over, Hawthorne began his career in higher education in the South. His fellow Confederate soldier, Benjamin Arnold, who was one of the first presidents at Corvallis College (now OSU), invited him out West to join the faculty.

In 1873, Hawthorne made his way to Oregon, a state where Black people weren’t allowed to settle at the time.

He served as a professor of languages at Corvallis College until 1884, when he moved to Eugene to teach at UO. He taught a variety of subjects and founded the psychology department.

An inside view of Hawthorne Hall from the early 1900s. (Courtesy of University Archives)

During his time in Eugene and Corvallis, Hawthorne was a vocal supporter of Confederate representation, and according to Fletcher, he used to scream  the “rebel yell” during Union marches in Eugene. The rebel yell is a distinctive high-pitched shriek used by Confederate soldiers during battle to intimidate opposing troops.

Hawthorne received the Confederate Cross from the Daughters of the Confederacy in the early 1900s, according to a newspaper clipping in the UO Archives. He was designated professor emeritus of psychology because of his contributions to the department. Hawthorne died in 1923 and was buried in the Eugene Masonic Cemetery on 24th Avenue and University Street.

Hawthorne Hall was named in 1959, when the north wing was added to the Walton Complex, according to the UO Libraries website.

The renaming process

In 2016, the Black Student Task Force released a list of 12 demands to improve Black students’ experiences on campus and requested that the University look into two specific building names for their associations with slavery.

The BSTF asked that Deady and Dunn halls — named after early university figures associated with slavery and the KKK respectively — be renamed. The university administration spent $23,397.29 to commission a panel of historians to look into Matthew Deady and Frederic Dunn’s histories in Oregon.

Dunn Hall was renamed Unthank Junior Hall, after the architecture school’s first Black graduate.

Last year, UO President Michael Schill said Deady Hall remained the same due to Deady’s “embrace of the new constitutional order” after the Civil War, as well as his contributions to the university.

Schill also acknowledged Oregon’s exclusionary policies towards Black people at the time of the Civil War. He noted that it was a “tumultuous time in Oregon’s history.” Slavery was illegal in the state for economic reasons, but Oregon still had racist policies.

Oregon instituted laws that excluded free Black people from coming to and settling in the state. The last exclusion law was amended from Oregon’s constitution in 1926.

Deady and Dunn remain somewhat in the spotlight and in conversation on campus. Schill is hosting a panel discussion on Dunn’s renaming featuring a BSTF member and a historian on Nov. 15.

OSU is soliciting input from its own community and commissioning historians in order to make a decision about renaming buildings. Two of the buildings under discussion are the Gill Coliseum arena and the Arnold Dining Center.   

The Arnold Dining Center is a similar case to Hawthorne Hall. Benjamin Arnold, one of Oregon State’s first presidents and a former Confederate soldier, invited Hawthorne out to Oregon. OSU recently released a historians’ report on his life.

Steve Clark, OSU’s vice president of university relations and marketing and chair of the school’s Architectural Naming Committee, said OSU will be installing plaques with the findings of the historians, whether the building is renamed or not.

The school is opting towards transparency; it posts updates to a website as the university gathers more information. OSU President Ed Ray will announce the decisions for each building at the end of November.

Ray wrote that “transparent efforts are essential to our growth…” on the university’s website for renaming buildings.

To rename or not to rename?

Hawthorne’s elite status in the Confederate Army is what makes him noteworthy in the public debate about renaming buildings named for those who fought to preserve the institution of slavery, Fletcher said.

“Had he been an 18-year-old private in the Confederate army, I don’t know if there would be any debate about stripping his name off the building or not,” Fletcher said.

Though little history is readily available to UO students who spend time in the building, Hawthorne Hall was named in honor of a former Confederate soldier and UO professor, Benjamin Hawthorne. (Sarah Northrop/Emerald)

Hawthorne’s history hasn’t been readily available unless community members seek it out.

UO sophomore Samuel Miller lived in Hawthorne Hall last year, and he stumbled down an internet rabbit hole that ended in his discovery of Hawthorne’s history.

He says not many people in his Academic Residential Community knew about the building’s namesake, so he posted in his ARC’s Facebook group about the connection between Hawthorne and the Confederate army.

Looking back now, he says his peers reacted with a less “hostile” attitude toward the information than he expected.

Miller says he’s not sure Hawthorne Hall should be renamed. But he wanted to acknowledge Oregon’s “white supremacist history” at the same time.

Fletcher said he doesn’t believe the hall name should be changed.

“You have to look at it on a case-by-case basis. For me, Hawthorne was a person who served in the Confederate army,” Fletcher said. “He was famous because of the work he did afterwards.”

The Emerald reached out to the Black Student Task Force members and the University of Oregon’s Black Student Union leader for comment on whether the hall should be renamed but never received a response from either organization.

UO spokesman Tobin Klinger said the university has not discussed renaming Hawthorne Hall.

“I’m not aware of previous discussions around the name Hawthorne Hall,” Klinger wrote in an email to the Emerald. He noted that the university is interested in this information but couldn’t speculate further.

Regardless of whether the UO administration decides to evaluate Hawthorne Hall’s name, campuses across the country are addressing these histories with similar results.

Universities in the South, as well as all over the country, are spending thousands of dollars to look into building names. Most often, student activism and political groups point to larger figures — those who were vocal supporters of white supremacist ideologies or staunch supporters of slavery — as targets of renaming, not general Confederate soldiers. Often, a school’s administration must weigh historical findings with a figure’s contributions to the school.

“[He] did what everyone his age did,” Fletcher said about Hawthorne. “I don’t know if we should hold that against them. I don’t know if the Hawthorne family cares that there is a hall named after him.”

Please consider donating to the Emerald. We are an independent non-profit dedicated to supporting and educating this generation's best journalists. Your donation helps pay equipment costs, travel, payroll, and more!