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.