San Francisco to remove names of Washington and Lincoln from schools

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<span>Photograph: Jeff Chiu/AP</span>
Photograph: Jeff Chiu/AP

The San Francisco school board has voted to remove the names of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Dianne Feinstein and a number of other politicians, conquistadors and historical figures from public schools after officials deemed them unworthy of the honor.

After months of debate and national attention, the board voted 6-1 Tuesday in favor of renaming 44 San Francisco schools with new names with no connection to slavery, oppression, racism, genocide or similar criteria.

School board members have repeatedly argued that the renaming is necessary, given the country’s reckoning with its Confederate monuments and other symbols of its racist past. The historical figures for whom the 44 schools are named have “significantly diminished the opportunities of those amongst us to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, according to the resolution approved Tuesday.

“It’s a message to our families, our students and our community,” said Mark Sanchez, a board member. “It’s not just symbolic. It’s a moral message.”

Related: A school's mural removal: should kids be shielded from brutal US history?

Families in some schools said they have argued for a name change for years. James Denman middle school, for example, was named after the first superintendent who denied Chinese students a public education. The naturalist John Muir’s commitment to preserving the country’s wildlands for white enjoyment gave rise to eco-minded white supremacy. Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison owned slaves.

But critics have called the renaming process hasty and under-researched, based on the fervor of the moment rather than on fact. In one instance, the committee didn’t know whether Roosevelt middle school was named after Theodore or Franklin Delano.

“I support some of the schools being renamed, but there are a lot of schools that do not need to be renamed,” said one Lowell high school sophomore in public comment.

“There is a lot of historical negligence that happened because they do not have a historian on the advisory committee. On the Google sheet of the renaming committee they cite Wikipedia as a source. As a high school student at Lowell, I’m not even allowed to use Wikipedia as a source for my history papers, let alone to spend millions of dollars to rename a school that may not even need to be renamed.”

Others argued that history needed to judge a person’s life as a whole. Lincoln was on the list for his treatment of Native Americans, but “Lincoln is President Obama’s favorite president”, Lope Yap Jr, the vice-president of the George Washington high school alumni association, said in public comment.

“Abolitionist Frederick Douglass praised Lincoln. Several historians have refuted the advisory committee’s conclusion regarding Lincoln. Mount Vernon sent you a letter extolling Washington and his overall accomplishments, even after pointing out Washington’s dark history.”

Dianne Feinstein, California’s senior senator and San Francisco native who has dropped in popularity locally in recent years, was added to the list because as San Francisco mayor she replaced a vandalized Confederate flag that was part of a longstanding flag display in front of City Hall. The name of Dianne Feinstein elementary school was one that came up multiple times during public comment, with many for and against changing the school name.

London Breed, San Francisco’s mayor, said while she understands the significance of school names and the importance to feel pride in a school name, she feels that renaming these schools should not be a priority when students are still not back in classrooms because of the pandemic.

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“Our students are suffering, and we should be talking about getting them in classrooms, getting them mental health support, and getting them the resources they need in this challenging time,” she said in a statement. “Our families are frustrated about a lack of a plan, and they are especially frustrated with the fact that the discussion of these plans weren’t even on the agenda for last night’s school board meeting.”

Some names suggested as replacements in public comment included Barack and Michelle Obama and Richard Bradley, the Black activist who dressed up as a Union soldier to remove the Confederate flag from the San Francisco Civic Center while Feinstein was mayor.

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