History and school names

Last week President Haney posted an idea on his Facebook page (now private, due to threats and other bad behavior from people who should know better), suggesting that maybe certain school communities should have conversations about re-naming their schools if those schools are currently named after slaveowners.

In SFUSD, we have four schools named after historical figures who owned slaves: George Washington High School, Jefferson Elementary School, Monroe Elementary School, and Francis Scott Key Elementary School.

I want to be clear about two things: first, I have not seen any proposal to rename schools and I would be very leery about doing so unless such a proposal had broad support in the community and came from the students, faculty and alumni of a particular school. I believe President Haney feels the same way — he just suggested a conversation and I support that suggestion. In particular, I think George Washington, as the first President of the United States, still deserves to have a San Francisco school named after him.

I think we should have a deeper conversation about school names and when/how/why we decide to rename a school. We have many schools named after people or events or places, some of which are now largely forgotten (or at least less-remembered than they used to be). Below are some examples — without using Google, do you know for whom these schools are currently named and why? (Confession: without Google, I know the reasons for some names but not all).

  • Argonne Elementary School
  • Leola Havard Early Education Center
  • Everett Middle School
  • Claire Lilienthal K-8
  • Rooftop K-8
  • James Lick Middle School
  • Commodore Sloat Elementary School
  • Dr. William Cobb Elementary School
  • James Denman Middle School
  • Guadalupe Elementary School

My point is not that some of these names are becoming obscure, but rather that many/most of them had enough meaning at some point that an earlier school board/community decided to honor them with a school name. Sometimes ideas and values change (one of the schools above was renamed three or four years ago with broad community support after the NAACP reminded the Board that the previous name for that school honored someone who, a century ago, harbored and promoted racist ideas).

Today is the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and I thought about this question while watching the movie “United 93” — a drama about the passengers on the fourth hijacked plane who fought back and probably prevented more loss of life and destruction in the nation’s capital that terrible day. I would be happy to consider naming a school after Mark Bingham, the gay PR executive, UC Berkeley graduate and rugby player who is believed to have played a major role in the passenger rebellion (in fact, the gymnasium at Eureka Valley Recreation Center is named after Mr. Bingham). I could also see naming a school after Betty Ann Ong, a George Washington HS graduate and American Airlines flight attendant who perished in the attacks after providing key early information about the hijackers to authorities (a Chinatown recreation center is named after Ms. Ong).

I would also be thrilled to name a school after Maya Angelou (as President Haney suggested), another George Washington HS graduate and the first female African-American Muni conductor, among many other achievements. More people probably recognize Ms. Angelou’s name than Mr. Bingham’s or Ms. Ong’s, and yet most of us would be willing to recognize any of their contributions as historically important and significant. And 100 years from now, will anyone remember any of these people? I hope so, and I also wonder.

Whose responsibility is it to keep a historical honor like the reason for an institutional name alive? I would argue that this responsibility rests with the school district for names of schools. If we have a school named after someone that we no longer want to honor, we as a district should be brave enough to argue that point, and we should have a strong enough argument to convince the broader community that such a change is deserved and necessary. If not, we should be proud of that school name and be willing to promote broad and ongoing understanding for why we have a school named after a person, place or event.

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3 responses to “History and school names

  1. I went to Washington and I would oppose the change. But if it has to be changed it should have a Chinese name as the school is nearly half Asian.

    Just renaming the four schools of slave holders may not go far enough. In addition to Washington, Jefferson, Scott-Key, and Monroe. We would need to root our other politicians as part of the purge. Some may have supported or accepted racist policies. Daniel Webster for example was concerned about the delicate balance of slave versus non-slave states.

    Perhaps more egregious than slavery was the subjugation of Native Americans which was considered genocide. We have schools named after Spanish colonialists, missionaries and conquistadors. We need to remove the names Serra, Balboa, Ulloa, and Noriega from our schools for example. Also in that category may be Mission. One could view Mission Dolores as a symbol of Native American oppression.

    By the way, Dana’s comments about Sloat would also apply to Stockton who took California from Mexico. I suppose you could consider them anti-Mexican. They too should go into our deplorable basket. Also Lawton was characterized as a fierce and tenacious Indian fighter who captured Geronimo.

    Going down this road of denying our history and providing students a safe space will have no end. We may also need to carefully examine the personal lives of any person who we name a school after, who may have exhibited behavior inconsistent with our values. What about someone who engaged in extramarital affairs? Is that someone whose name we want on a school?

  2. As a proud parent of 3 Commodore Sloat ES graduates, I do in fact know who the Commodore was without having to resort to Google. Let’s just say that in my opinion, his connection to SF was so tenuous and involved in an act of war that I myself would support renaming the school. It has been rumored that wildly popular local children’s author Lemony Snickett (aka Daniel Handler) attended Commodore Sloat; if that is true, perhaps renaming the school after him would have a positive impact, encouraging more students to read, and maybe even to write, for pleasure.
    I also agree with you that any conversation about changing a school name should rightfully bubble up from that school community. When the actual stakeholders of the school – parents, students, staff, alumni – originate and stand firmly behind the idea, it could then be brought to the school board for a broader community discussion.

    In the case of George Washington HS, it doesn’t feel like that is what has happened. It feels more like this was an idea conceived by Matt Haney and then put out there by him on Facebook, not an idea that bubbled up from within the GWHS community. It feels like Haney is telling the GWHS community that this is something they need to discuss, not that the GWHS community is approaching the school board saying that it is something the board needs to discuss. So that feels kind of backwards.

    It is my understanding that Mr. Haney is not a stakeholder specifically of GWHS – that he neither attended the school, nor worked there, nor sent a child there. I find it counterintuitive to the concept of “grassroots support” that a school board president with no connection to the school, would take the position that his idea for change is something they should discuss. That doesn’t feel like any kind of grassroots proposal, but rather something being imposed from outside.

    Meanwhile, aren’t both you and Commissioner Fewer both actual GWHS stakeholders (as parents of GWHS students and, in Ms Fewer’s case, as a GWHS alum)? If this idea were originating from the GWHS community, wouldn’t either of you two been the more logical choice to bring the topic forward?

  3. Great comments, Rachel. Also, you may have already seen the comments I posted on Matt Haney’s Facebook thread about the need to increase the prominent use of the name Ruth Asawa for what was formerly San Francisco School of the Arts. Ms. Asawa was a noted San Francisco artist (some of her works are public; some are at the De Young). She was a woman of color and an internment camp survivor, and she conceived and in the early 1980s helped launch the SFUSD high school now officially called Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts. During her final illness, she finally agreed to have the school named after her, and the name change was made official in 2011. But use of the name has languished, and the “branding” has used the initials SOTA either with no Ruth Asawa at all or with her name very small. The intent of downplaying her name probably isn’t racist or sexist, but it strongly conveys racism and sexism. This is something that needs to change.