As the Black Lives Matter movement gains momentum nationwide, some communities in California are moving to rename local schools that some say glorify a racist and painful past.
In Berkeley, the school board last week voted to change the names of Washington and Jefferson elementary schools because both men — like many early American presidents — owned slaves.
In Folsom, community members want to rename Sutter Middle School, because settler John Sutter enslaved Native Americans on his property near Sacramento. In Fullerton, the school board this week changed the name of Plummer Auditorium at Fullerton High School because Louis Plummer, a former superintendent, reportedly had ties to the Ku Klux Klan.
And in Long Beach, a petition is circulating to change the name of Woodrow Wilson High School because the former president was a segregationist and held racist views about black people.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond weighed in on the topic at his press conference on June 16, saying he applauds the districts that have dropped racially charged or insensitive school names.
“When we have institutions — not just schools — named after Confederate leaders, or those who perpetuated racism and lynchings and hate, that exacerbates feelings of race in this country,” he said.
Schools named after men with slavery past
Hundreds of California schools are named after men who owned or promoted slavery, or held overtly racist views. Fifty-seven are named after George Washington, the country’s first president; 43 are named after Thomas Jefferson, the third president and an author of the Declaration of Independence; and 29 are named Wilson, presumably for Woodrow Wilson, president during World War I.
The California Department of Education provides guidance for districts seeking to rename schools and tracks those changes.
There’s been no formal survey of recent school name changes, but in the past 20 years 3,237 schools in California have changed their names, according to the California Department of Education. Most of those name changes are due to a shift in a school’s focus, to science or arts, for example, or student population, such as a K-8 school becoming a middle school.
School boards are likely to see more petitions in the next few months, as campuses begin to reopen and communities begin focusing on matters beyond the coronavirus pandemic, said Troy Flint, spokesman for the California School Boards Association.
“School name changes are probably a lagging indicator of public opinion,” he said. “I’d expect further conversation on this topic over the summer and whenever school resumes.”
Berkeley Unified school board member speaks out
Ka’Dijah Brown, a Berkeley Unified school board member who wrote the district’s resolution to rename Washington and Jefferson schools, told Berkeleyside that the name changes are part of a larger effort to improve services and outcomes for black students.
“This is the first — but not the last — of our workaround ensuring that we move from the thought of equity to excellence,” Brown said, later decrying the public attention focused only on the name changes. “I’m frustrated that the same level of passion and concern is not given to the other issues that plague our district and cause our district to perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline and perpetuate school pushouts.”
In Long Beach, almost 3,000 people have signed a petition calling for the school board to rename Woodrow Wilson High School.
“When students enter a school to learn, they should not have to look up at a name that stood for white supremacy at the highest levels of political power,” the Long Beach petition states. “An educational institution located in a diverse and inclusive city like Long Beach should not memorialize this man. … There are many great Americans whose name could better represent the promise of a Long Beach education.”
Bridget Ford, professor and chair of the history department at Cal State East Bay, said replacing names of racist figures with more inclusive or inspiring people “is the right thing to do.”
“I don’t think that by renaming a school we’re erasing history. It’s not an erasure,” she said. “There are many, many individuals in history who’ve done astounding things to improve American lives who’ve never been recognized. That, in its own way, is a kind of erasure. We should be lifting up and celebrating those people.”
Even before the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, several school districts in California had moved recently to drop racially insensitive school names.
Racially insensitive school names
In San Rafael, the Dixie School District changed its name to Miller Creek. In Berkeley, LeConte Elementary is now named after Sylvia Mendez, a desegregation pioneer. Palo Alto renamed schools honoring David Starr Jordan and Lewis Terman, both known for their support of eugenics, for Frank Greene, a black microchip designer; and Ellen Fletcher, a former city councilwoman and Holocaust survivor. In 2016, Long Beach Unified and San Diego Unified both renamed elementary schools named for Confederate general Robert E. Lee. In Alameda, the school board in 2019 changed the name of Haight elementary — named for a 19th century California governor with racist views toward Asians and blacks — to Love Elementary.
In February, West Contra Costa Unified swapped Woodrow Wilson for former first lady Michelle Obama to grace a Richmond elementary school.
(In this week’s EdSource podcast, hear PTA President Maisha Cole tell how parents persuaded the school board in West Contra Costa Unified to switch the name of Wilson Elementary, named after President Woodrow Wilson, to Michelle Obama Elementary School.)
School board member Mister Phillips, at a Feb. 12 school board meeting, said he hopes students who have upbringings similar to Obama’s will be inspired by going to a school named after her.
“I want children to say ‘That is who our school is named after, and that person is me, and even if that person doesn’t look exactly like me, that person comes from the south side of Chicago and that person comes from a place that’s like the place where I come from,’” Phillips said. “This is about empowering our children and sending good strong examples before them, so they can see endless possibilities in their own lives.”
But efforts to eliminate racism — and understand history — should not be limited to renaming schools, said Birte Pfleger, a professor at Cal State Los Angeles who specializes in early American history.
‘What we should be doing is discussing bigger issues’
“Slavery is central to American history,” she said. “I’m not sure that just changing the names of schools is really helpful, at this point. What we should be doing is discussing the bigger issues.”
History is messy, she said, and replete with contradictions and nuances. Names honoring Confederate heroes should go, but figures like Washington and Jefferson play key roles in U.S. history, and are worth more discussion in history classes, not diminished from the academic landscape, she said.
Renaming institutions and toppling monuments is nothing new. People have been doing it for millennia, said Dan Melia, a rhetoric professor at UC Berkeley. It’s usually a political statement, a way for people to distance themselves from an oppressive or painful past.
“You’re not erasing history, you’re just erasing a symbol,” he said. “It’s a low-stakes way to have a public conversation about history, what we value, what our morals are. It’s a normal process.”
The harder part, he said, is deciding where to draw the line, and when modern sensibilities should be applied to figures who lived hundreds of years ago. Most ancient Romans and Greeks owned slaves, for example, but are still taught in literature, history, civics and philosophy classes, and are memorialized in countless ways.
“These are not clear-cut decisions,” he said. “It can be an emotional issue.”
* EdSource reporter Ali Tadayon contributed to this report.