On Feb. 1, 2022, Willamette celebrated its anniversary. To mark the occasion, Goudy commons cafeteria offered Willamette-themed cupcakes in the school’s colors of cardinal, gold and white, adorned with white “W” decorations. Willamette President Steve Thorsett sent out a “Words from Waller” email addressed to the campus community that surveyed the history and accomplishments of the university over its 180-year history. He emphasized parts of Willamette’s history that contributed to equality and social progress: “We were one of the first universities in the country founded to serve all students regardless of race or sex,” the email read. He called on students to “turn the knowledge and skills they learn here into action on behalf of a more just and sustainable world.”
Creating a more just and sustainable world requires the courage to take an honest look at the past. On Willamette Day, when we remember our history, Willamette should remember all of that history. The school that would become Willamette, founded by Methodist missionary Jason Lee, was initially the Indian Mission Manual Labor school. The article “A Native Legacy” by Emily Simpson, available in the Hatfield Library University Archives, quotes June Olsen, the Cultural Resource Manager with the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde, that the goal of the mission school was to “civilize” and Christianize local children from the Kalapuya and other native peoples. The school moved into a new, bigger building in 1843, but was closed the following year by Lee’s successor George Gary because of how many students ran away, were taken away by their parents, or died from disease. In the article, Olsen said another factor in the school’s closing was that by 1844, “popular opinion on the East Coast had turned against Indians; they were thwarting settlement. Educating Indian children was just not as popular anymore.”
All of this information is available either on Willamette’s website or in the university archives. In fact, a plaque on the south side of Walton Hall, gifted by the class of 1926 commemorates the site of the first building on campus, founded “for an Indian mission school.” After the mission school closed, the building became the Oregon Institute, a school for educating the children of white settlers, which became “Wallamet” University in 1853. That first, original building burned down in 1872.
It does seem, from the exclusion of this history from this year’s Willamette Day “Words from Waller”, that the university is selective about when it wants to acknowledge that part of our past. I don’t think this is the right choice. There is no better or more appropriate time than a day dedicated to our history to have these discussions. Now would’ve been a great time for President Thorsett to contribute to the ongoing discussions happening at our school and similar institutions around the country about the responsibilities we’ve inherited from our history and how that impact continues today: Willamette was designed to educate the children of the white Americans who settled on Kalapuyan land, and it still does primarily just that. By focusing only on forwarding the positive in our school’s public narrative about itself, Willamette displays a tone-deafness that risks alienating current and prospective students interested in creating that “more just and sustainable world.”
It’s good to celebrate and affirm the value of the things we’re proud of in our past. But not mentioning the parts of our history that we aren’t proud of doesn’t make them go away.