SEARCY, Ark. (AP) — The largest private college in Arkansas says it won’t change the name of a building that pays homage to a former school president who opposed integration to instead honor Botham Jean, a Black graduate who was killed by a Dallas officer in his own living room.
Harding University President Bruce McLarty wrote a letter last week to the campus saying the college would not change the name of the George S. Benson Auditorium. An online petition asked officials at the Christian university to rename the auditorium after Jean, who was shot and killed by Amber Guyger in September 2018 after the white police officer said she mistook the apartment for her own and thought he was an intruder. Guyger is serving a 10-year prison sentence.
McLarty said he intends to honor Jean “prominently and permanently” on campus but hasn’t determined the proper way, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported Tuesday.
Harding graduate Jackson House petitioned the university to change the name, noting that Benson opposed integrating the campus, making the racist and inaccurate assertion that doing so would lead to more crime, disease and destruction.
The university did not integrate until 1963, as required by the Civil Rights Act to continue receiving federal funds.
McLarty argued that Benson also acted in good ways through mission work and his story must be told comprehensively.
“Today, we are embarrassed that African-Americans were not welcomed as students at Harding until 1963,” McLarty wrote. “I confess to now being embarrassed that even though African-Americans have been an important part of the Harding community since 1963, there are no buildings or landmarks that celebrate any of those alumni who have made such a contribution to our University family. That must change.”
House said McLarty’s response downplayed people’s issues with Benson. He added that many people told him they had never known about Benson’s bigoted views. House acknowledged that he also didn’t learn of them until 2012.
“Saying we stand with African American students and not a racist president, that to me is an easy transition to make as a institution,” House said. “But that’s not where they’re at.”