Max Denning

After decades of scrutiny due to its namesake’s connection to the Ku Klux Klan, Eastern Oregon University’s Pierce Library may be renamed.

Originally named Walter M. Pierce Library, after the 17th governor of Oregon who resided in Eastern Oregon, the building was renamed in 1999 to simply the Pierce Library to include the contributions of his third wife, Cornelia Marvin Pierce, who was Oregon’s first state librarian.

Walter supported the 1926 ballot measure to fund the Eastern Oregon State Normal School, which would eventually become Eastern Oregon University.

The building was renamed after a committee at EOU was tasked with looking into Walter’s connection with the La Grande Chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. According to meeting minutes from the Campus Assembly in 1999, “It was determined that Walter M. Pierce was not a member of the KKK La Grande Chapter, while he did attend a few meetings.”

The research brought forth information on Cornelia, which prompted the

university to change the library’s name to include both Walter’s and Cornelia’s historical contributions.

In the years since, the name of the library has remained controversial.

A 2010 letter to the editor in The Observer called for the university to rename the library. In December 2017, the EOU faculty senate passed a resolution to affirm the desire to see the name of the library changed through a deliberative process.

At the November Board of Trustees meeting, EOU President Tom Insko told the board a committee was being formed to look into the possibility of removing the Pierce name from the library.

Tim Seydel, vice president for university advancement at EOU, will be leading the committee. He said the group will be evaluating available material to make a recommendation to Insko on whether changing the name is a viable option.

“We’ll be looking at all the information that has been gathered to date and then the group will decide if there is additional information that needs to be researched or pulled together. Then (we will) provide a recommendation of whether we should retain the name or remove the name,” Seydel said.

Walter Pierce: an ‘honorary klansman’

Walter’s association with the Klan is part of the historical record. In the official State of Oregon archives it states, “Pierce won the governorship … with the aid of the Ku Klux Klan.”

Other sources say the relationship is less cut and dry. The Oregon History Project, produced by the Oregon Historical Society, states on its website: “Pierce’s relationship to the Klan is unclear; he was probably not a member, but he did court their support.”

Yet, the meeting minutes from the La Grande KKK meeting, which are available through the Oregon Historical Society, on Jan. 26, 1923, referred to Walter as a member who was in attendance at its November meeting: “The Honorary Members in Attendance Were Klansman Walter M. Pierce, Governor Elect of La Grande Oregon.”

David A. Horowitz, a longtime cultural history professor at Portland State University and the editor of “Inside the Klavern: The Secret History of a Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s” — an annotated collection of the meeting minutes of the
La Grande KKK chapter from 1922 to 1924 — referred to Walter as an honorary klansman. In the book, Horowitz said there is no evidence of Walter ever paying dues or being sworn into the Klan.

Horowitz also wanted to be clear to distinguish the 1920s KKK from the Klan that existed in the 1860s and the 1950s and 1960s.

“Their prejudices were ugly, unseemly, but they’re not the racist knight riders that many associate with the klan,” Horowitz wrote.

The 1920s Klan was more anti-Catholic than anything else, Horowitz said.

He also compared the 1920s Klan’s “casual racism” to that of other contemporary mainstream organizations’ racial attitudes.

While Horowitz wrote that Walter was “really racist” when it came to Asian immigrants, he stated these were common prejudices held by middle-class white men in the 1920s. In Walter’s address as governor to the Oregon Legislature in 1923, he made his feelings clear: “We should enact a law prohibiting the selling or leasing of land in Oregon to the Mongolian and Malay. European and Asiatic civilization can not amalgamate, and we can not and must not submit to the peaceful penetration of the Japanese or other Mongolian races.”

Horowitz said he doesn’t believe the Pierce name should be removed from the library, noting that forcing all historical figures to live up to the modern cultural values and take out the context of the times the figures lived in is a poor way of understanding history.

See complete story in Wednesday's Observer