San Francisco School Name Debate Pits Liberals

San Francisco School Name Debate Pits Liberals

SAN FRANCISCO — Maybe it was the suddenness, that 44 names were being deleted all at once. Or maybe it was the feeling by many that the Board of Education had gone one step too far, and during a wrenching pandemic to boot. Whatever the reasons, the decision to wipe out one-third of the city’s school names, including ones honoring Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, has struck a nerve in San Francisco.

Less than 12 hours after the city’s Board of Education voted to change the names, Mayor London Breed lashed out at the decision, questioning the board’s priorities. “Let’s bring the same urgency and focus on getting our kids back in the classroom, and then we can have that longer conversation about the future of school names,” Ms. Breed said.

Even more scathing was the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board, which wrote that members of the Board of Education had “largely quit the education business and rebranded themselves as amateur historians.”

The 6-1 decision by the board came late on Tuesday, when they voted by Zoom to remove the names of those “who engaged in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings; or who oppressed women, inhibiting societal progress; or whose actions led to genocide; or who otherwise significantly diminished the opportunities of those among us to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

On the list were schools named after George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Francis Scott Key, for their ownership of slaves; Abraham Lincoln, for the 1862 execution of 38 Dakota tribesmen; and Dianne Feinstein, California’s senior senator, because a stolen Confederate flag outside City Hall was replaced in 1984, when she was mayor of San Francisco.

Other names slated for deletion: President Herbert Hoover; John Muir, the naturalist and author; James Russell Lowell, an abolitionist poet and editor; Paul Revere, the Revolutionary War figure; and Robert Louis Stevenson, the author. The rationale for each decision was listed on a spreadsheet.

The Board of Education has not decided on new names and says it welcomes suggestions.

“Any final decision to change school names rests with the elected members of the Board of Education,” the board said in a statement.

Many incredulous parents mocked the decision on social media even as the news ricocheted through the nation’s right-wing news sites.

Some parents said they were particularly angry that the name changes were announced just as they received an email from the district saying it was unlikely students would return for in-person learning this school year.

Dr. Adam Davis, a pediatrician in San Francisco who has a son in kindergarten and a daughter in second grade, said he was receiving text messages from friends in Boston ridiculing the changes.

“I don’t know anybody personally who doesn’t think it’s embarrassing,” Dr. Davis said. The renaming, he said, “is a caricature of what people think liberals in San Francisco do.”

On Facebook and Twitter, parents said they were worried about the cost of the renaming — estimates for changing signage, paperwork and websites for the 44 schools run into the millions — and how it will worsen the district’s already strained finances. The name changes were done without community input and took priority over reopening schools, parents said.

In an interview Dr. Davis made clear that the anger over the issue was not solely from conservatives. Like many political disputes in San Francisco it was an intramural liberal fight.

“I’m a strong Elizabeth Warren liberal — Biden was too moderate for me,” Dr. Davis said. “Liberals by definition believe that government can do good things. If we do laughable things then we make a mockery of the movement.”

Noah Griffin, who attended George Washington High School six decades ago and has been involved in other disputes involving historical legacies, said the name changes left him divided.

He does not object to his alma mater changing its name because as a Black man he sees Washington’s slave ownership as unpardonable.

“What Washington did didn’t benefit people who look like me,” Mr. Griffin said. “The stain of slave-owning is something I cannot ignore.”

Mr. Griffin also said he understood deleting Lincoln’s name, not because of his personal beliefs but those of Native Americans.

“Lincoln is a hero to me but he is not to the Indigenous American community,” Mr. Griffin said. “Only he who wears the shoe knows how tightly it fits.”

But Mr. Griffin said he was opposed to renaming Dianne Feinstein Elementary School.

“I worked for Dianne Feinstein as an administrative aide,” he said. “We’ve been friends for almost 50 years now. I think she has been an exemplary senator.

“There may be some excesses along the way in this process.”

Nguyen Louie, the mother of a student at Junipero Serra Elementary School, named after an 18th-century Catholic priest who established missions in California, said she supported the renaming of that school.

“I feel a little bit ashamed that I’m sending my son to the school,” she said. Serra was canonized in 2015 by Pope Francis but is criticized by Native American groups and many others for the suppression of native cultures during the brutal period of colonization.

But Ms. Louie said she was not sure about all the other names on the list — Lincoln, she said, “is a hard one” — and she wished that the process had been given more time.

“It would be great if they could say, ‘These schools are on the docket but let’s implement it later,’” she said.

Brandee Marckmann, the parent of a third grader at Sutro Elementary School, which is named after a late 19th-century San Francisco mayor and is being removed for racist policies at the time, is unequivocal in her support of name changes.

“I think it’s a real sign that we live in such a racist country that we have so many of our schools named after people who committed atrocities against Black and Indigenous people.”

Keeping some of the names, like Lincoln, could be justified, she said, “only when you center whiteness.”

The renaming process, she said, has been “a really good journey for the most part of getting a name that is joyful and just.”

“In 30 or 40 years people are going to say, ‘Why did we have schools named after slave owners?’” she said.

The San Francisco renaming dispute is one of many in the Bay Area. Across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County a group of parents and alumni are accusing members of the faculty and administration at Sir Francis Drake High School of going rogue and removing signage without full agreement by the community.

And across the Bay the administration at the University of California, Berkeley, on Tuesday unnamed Kroeber Hall. A committee that made the decision noted that although Alfred Kroeber was considered one of the most influential American anthropologists in the first half of the 20th century, his research methods were “immoral and unethical, even for the time.”

Among other reasons cited, Mr. Kroeber “collected or authorized the collection of the remains of Native American ancestors from grave sites and curated a repository of these human remains for research study,” the committee said.

In what is perhaps a sign of the times, it was the fourth unnaming at the university over the past year.

“Everything is up for re-evaluation,” said Mr. Griffin, the alumnus of the school formerly known as George Washington High School. “We are living through revolutionary times.”

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